The marijuana legalization question on the ballots in about a dozen states this fall may be a simple yes or no proposition. But todayís conversation about marijuana is more complicated than youíd think, especially compared to the mostly one-sided debates of the war-on-drugs era.
The campaigns in Massachusetts are already heating up. The proponents, a local affiliate of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, have been at it for a year, collecting signatures and building a base of support. The opposition opened its campaign this month, with Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh taking the lead and a new group, the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, is backing them up.
The themes of the opposition are familiar: Pot is bad ó more potent and dangerous than the stuff you smoked back in college ó and especially bad for kids. The initiative is funded by bad, for-profit corporations that, like tobacco companies, will profit by getting kids hooked. Marijuana leads to harder drugs, especially heroin.
But the context is different today. The debate is no longer between marijuana and no marijuana; all agree marijuana is here to stay. The question is whether it will continue to be distributed through the black market or through a legal, taxed and regulated industry.
This is Reefer Madness revised. No longer are the opponents pretending that one puff of marijuana will turn an adult into a monster. Now itís all about the children, and the old argument that marijuana is bad for kids is stronger than ever. Research confirms that marijuana use, especially heavy use, has lasting effects on adolescent brain development.
But there are lots of things that are bad for children but just fine for adults. Should they all be illegal? More to the point, is a black market better at protecting children than licensed and regulated retailers?
ďOur opponents seem to prefer that criminals control the marijuana market and sell untested, unlabeled products to people of any age,Ē said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the proponents.
Opponents like Baker and state Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senateís point person on marijuana issues, point to Colorado as an example of the dangers of legalization, but Colorado isnít exactly cooperating. A poll last fall found 53 percent of residents say legal weed has been good for the state, with 39 percent saying it has been bad.
As for the children, Colorado state officials reported this week that there has been no significant increase in the use of marijuana by those under 21 since the drug was legalized in 2012.
The link between marijuana and heroin is more complicated. Baker and Walsh have worked hard to stem the opioid addiction epidemic, and itís often the first thing they bring up when talk turns to marijuana reform.
But they know as well as anyone that it wasnít marijuana that fueled the current wave of heroin addiction. Four out of five heroin users started with prescription painkillers.
The more interesting question is whether marijuana is part of the solution to the opioid crisis. On April 19, advocates asked regulators in Maine to make it the first state to allow opioid addiction as condition for receiving medical marijuana, citing testimony from addicts in recovery who say smoking pot helps keep them from relapsing.
Thereís also the question of whether marijuana is a healthier alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain. A new survey of medical marijuana users in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine found that two-thirds have reduced their use of other medications, especially opioids, to control their pain, the Maine Sunday Telegram reports.
Thatís why Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a handful of her colleagues have joined the calls for cannabis to be removed from the Drug Enforcement Administrationís Schedule I controlled substances list. They want to clear the barriers for new research on cannabis-based pain treatment. In response, three federal agencies promised to make a determination on the issue by mid-summer. That could pave the way for President Barack Obama to deschedule cannabis before he leaves office, which would be the most significant change in federal marijuana policy since Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs.
Itís no surprise, then, that some of the biggest backers of the groups opposing state legalization initiatives are major pharmaceutical companies, including those who sell opioid painkillers. The Massachusetts organization has yet to file campaign finance records, but those bankrolling the opposition in other states include drug companies, unions representing police and prison guards, for-profit prison operators and the liquor industry.
Thereís a lot of money on the line, with one recent report predicting legal cannabis in Massachusetts could be a $1.1 billion industry by 2020. Opponents warn of profit-seeking capitalists pushing legalization, but the liquor and pharmaceutical industries are profit-driven as well, and so are the cartels and dealers that have been supplying the market for decades.
Itís those profits, along with the dreams of stoners and the fears of parents, that promise an intense ó and expensive ó campaign to see if Massachusetts will be the next state to legalize marijuana.

ó Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts. He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.