Three Massachusetts attorney general candidates discussed their plans surrounding issues of mental health, education, and the cannabis industry at a discussion hosted by the Boston College Law School Rappaport Center on Thursday.
The candidates—Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey—first discussed the “Mass. and Cass” crisis. The crisis refers to the intersection of Melnea Cass Blvd and Massachusetts Ave, which is known as the visible representation of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health issues in Boston.
Liss-Riordan, a partner at Lichten & Liss-Riordan, P.C., said the pharmaceutical industry needs to be held accountable for the Mass. and Cass crisis.
“As your attorney general I will do everything to make sure we get the resources and the help to the people who need it,” she said. “[Taking on the pharmaceutical industry] is exactly the type of work that I’ve been doing for more than 20 years—it’s taking on big corporations and holding them accountable for the harm.”
Campbell, a former Boston city councilor, said this crisis exists beyond just the physical location. To address the crisis, Campbell said it is important to ensure that every community has access to mental health care.
“[Many communities] do not have access to accessible [and] affordable health care, especially in the context of behavioral health,” Campbell said. “The AG’s office has a critical role to ensure that.”
According to Campbell, it is also critical to recognize that there is a mental health crisis in Massachusetts.
“When you do that, more people come into the fold to partner in that work and to make a difference,” she said.
In addition to funding organizations that provide health care and other services, Campbell said it is important to connect the mental health crisis to the resources provided in the state’s education system by providing more support to students than just guidance counselors and behavioral health specialists.
Palfrey, former assistant attorney general and current deputy general counsel at the Department of Commerce, said it is necessary to prevent public mental health crises from happening in the first place.
“What we need to do is invest in these communities,” he said. “We need to invest in preventative health care and really try to take these challenges head on.”
Palfrey said he is in favor of single-payer health care—a universal health care system where all expenses are covered by a singular public system—since the current health care system significantly underinvests in prevention.
The candidates then discussed the attorney general’s role regarding the legalization of cannabis and in making the benefits of the industry accessible to all.
Liss-Riordan said she is concerned about large corporations taking over the cannabis industry.
“I am concerned when a small number of corporations get concentrated power in any area, and unfortunately, that already seems to be happening in the cannabis industry,” she said. “We need to make sure that the opportunities that have been created by this industry are accessible.”
People who were previously convicted of possession felonies for cannabis should have their records expunged, Liss-Riordan said.
“We still have people whose records are still marred from past conduct that is now perfectly legal in the state of Massachusetts,” she said. “We need to expunge those records.”
Campbell also said the attorney general’s office has to play a crucial role in working with the statehouse to expunge the records of those convicted of cannabis possession felonies and help those currently imprisoned for such offenses.
“We absolutely need to do something about the people who are sitting in prisons,” she said.
Palfrey said in addition to freeing people from prison sentences for marijauna-related offenses that were previously illegal, all communities need to profit from the new cannabis industry.
“So many aspects of our economy are staggeringly biased towards the people at the very top and biased against communities of color,” he said. “We need to make sure that the cannabis industry, and this is not true at this moment, does benefit all of the communities that we serve in the commonwealth.”
Campbell said she is the only candidate who has helped Black-owned businesses open cannabis sites.
According to Campbell, basic training for employees and workers regarding cannabis is critical.
“The last piece is training, whether it’s through the Fair Labor Division or some other unit of the office, there are a lot of folks who don’t know what their rights are in the context of employment when it comes to the legalization of marijuana,” she said.
Transitioning to the topic of education, Liss-Riordan said any form of discrimination in Massachusetts schools should not be tolerated.
“We need to make sure that our schools have the tools that they need and that our teachers are supported and that our laws are enforced equitably throughout our education [system],” she said.
Campbell said there is a need to address the disadvantages marginalized students may face within the school system.
“I do think the AG’s office has an ability to go after some of these school districts that are not delivering on their promise, especially for low-income residents and students of color that desperately need an education to be successful,” she said.
Palfrey said the disparity among school systems based on location and race is illegally occuring in Massachusetts.
“The state is failing its constitutional obligations to its young people,” he said. “Where you live and the color of your skin should not determine what kind of an education your kids get. … To provide a free and appropriate public education is an affirmative duty on the part of the state. If we fail to do that, that is a civil rights crisis.”
According to Palfrey, one of his opponents has been more supportive of expanding charter schools, but he does not think that is the answer to this issue.
“I think that the answer to this challenge is not picking winners and losers,” he said. “It is saying that every child everywhere in the commonwealth is entitled to a free and appropriate public education.”
Palfrey said corporate money in elections is the biggest threat to American democracy, and he called on his opponents to sign a pledge to “shut down” their super PACs—political action committees with unlimited financial contributions that lobby for various issues and candidates.
“We need to get corporate money out of our elections,” he said. “If I’m AG, I pledge to be the people’s lawyer, to be truly independent, because that’s what the people’s lawyer does.”
Campbell said the many ways the attorney general’s office can help Massachusetts residents is a reason she is running for the office.
“I’m really excited and honored to be a candidate in this race because that office indeed is a special office that absolutely can help residents and businesses with their daily struggles,” she said.