BOSTON—Voters in more than a dozen state legislative districts backed dramatic expansions to legal access to marijuana in Tuesday's elections, and advocates plan to use the results to press lawmakers to loosen restrictions on the drug.
Advocates placed 18 advisory questions on Tuesday's ballot to get a sense whether voters would support another overhaul of marijuana laws.
Nine of the questions supported the use of marijuana for medical reasons while another nine backed legalizing the drug outright, allowing the state to regulate and tax it.
Voters responded to the questions with a resounding "yes." Support ranged from 54 percent in some districts to up to 70 percent in others, according to an Associated Press review of campaign returns.
In the largest district, the 1st Middlesex and Norfolk senate district encompassing Newton, Brookline and parts of Wellesley, 63 percent of voters backed full legalization of the drug. The question there asked: "Shall the state senator from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow the state to regulate the taxation, cultivation and sale of marijuana to adults?"
An aide to that lawmaker, state Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, said she could not be reached for comment Friday.
Other cities and towns that backed full legalization included: Salem, Swampscott, Marblehead, Hudson, Maynard, Stow, Dover, Needham, Falmouth, Nantucket, Deerfield, Amherst, Lincoln, Sudbury and Wayland.
Supporters of the questions say voters are ahead of lawmakers in their growing acceptance of marijuana.
"This shows lawmakers that if they want to pursue this through the legislative process rather than with a ballot initiative, there is popular support," said Mike Meno of the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project.
That group supported a 2008 ballot initiative overwhelming backed by Massachusetts voters which decriminalized the possession of an ounce of less of the drug. The law instituted a $100 civil fine instead. Meno said his group is pushing bills in the Massachusetts Legislature that would allow the medical use of marijuana under a doctor's supervision.
Other advocates, including Steven Epstein of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, have said the goal of the advisory questions was to see if voters are ready to make marijuana a legal product that can be purchased and taxed, like alcohol.
It's unclear how soon a question about marijuana restrictions could get on a statewide ballot.
State law prohibits advocates from placing a question on the ballot for two election cycles if it is "substantially the same petition" as an earlier petition. If a question proposing full legalization or expanded medical marijuana use is deemed substantially the same as the question decriminalizing marijuana, then the earliest a question could make the ballot is 2014. If not, a question could be placed on the 2012 ballot.
In California, a high-profile ballot question that would have allowed possession of marijuana for personal use was defeated Tuesday, 54 to 46 percent.
Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone opposes loosening the law. He said the marijuana available today is far more potent than what was sold decades ago. He also said users are more likely to be involved in car crashes than nonusers.
"With young people using and abusing alcohol and other drugs at troubling rates, to add another element to this already dangerous equation would be extremely detrimental, irresponsible, and hazardous to our community as a whole," Leone said in a statement.
Leone said he's keeping open mind on the use of marijuana for medical purposes, provided the benefits can't be obtained any other way.
Advocates also placed advisory questions on ballots before seeking to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in 2008. The effects of the resulting law have been mixed.
Although the law set a civil fine of $100 for those caught with an ounce or less of marijuana, some Massachusetts towns have given up enforcing it, saying it's written with too many loopholes to be effective.
MassCann, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition: http://www.masscann.org/
Marijuana Policy Project: http://www.mpp.org/