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Legal Marijuana Faces Setback in Massachusetts

January 11, 2017
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Legal recreational pot in Massachusetts? Voters say, “Yes!”
Their political representatives? “No so fast.”

The voters in Massachusetts have spoken. A ballot initiative which passed in November, 2016, allows adults 21 and over to possess and use limited amounts of marijuana and grow as many as a dozen marijuana plants in their homes. It was approved by about 53 percent of voters, and it took effect on December 15th.

Yes, say the voters. Whoa, says the governor.

Without public debate, or even a public hearing, the Massachusetts State House and Senate met at end-of-year closed, informal sessions to pass a bill delaying the rollout of legal, safe retail marijuana stores to enact the will of the people. There were only a few lawmakers present during the sessions.

The bill, signed by Governor Charlie Baker, cannot and does not overturn the ballot initiative. But it will push back the process by at least six months, setting the estimated time for legal marijuana outlets to open from the beginning of 2018 to at least the middle of that year. All major deadlines will be delayed for a half-year, including the March 1st, 2017 deadline for the state treasurer to name a cannabis control commission (whose job it will be to oversee the recreational marijuana market); a September 15th deadline for the commission to approve detailed regulations; an October 1st deadline for accepting applications for retail marijuana outlets, and the January 1st, 2018, deadline for licensing the first marijuana shops.

Lizzy Guyton, spokeswoman for the Governor, said that Baker was “committed to adhering to the will of the voters by implementing the new law as effectively and responsibly as possible.” The governor was, she said, motivated solely by a desire to give lawmakers enough time to prepare for the new industry. Legislators cited the complex array of regulations and licensing needed to ensure safe and responsible enactment of the initiative.

As the Governor signed the bill, a small group of activists protested outside the Statehouse.

There now exists a legal grey area in Massachusetts. It is legal to grow and own recreational marijuana, to give it away, but not to sell it. One enterprising man tried selling empty sandwich bags, with marijuana included as a “free gift” with the bag. The district attorney closed this down, because a “gift” transfer cannot be advertised or promoted, and the man was advertising on Craigslist.

“We are in fear that people are going to get arrested in the next six months because there will be a time frame when it’s legal to possess it but you cannot buy it,” Ms. Donlan, a protestor, said. “We’re losing out on tax revenue and we’re fueling the black market.”

Other activists, including members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, were outraged that the lawmakers voted on the bill without public notice, review or debate. They said that the delay “flies in the face of the will of the voters” who approved the ballot question legalizing the drug.

Massachusetts will not have to figure out the regulatory environment from scratch. No need to reinvent the wheel, when they have the examples of states like Colorado (recreational pot legalized in 2012), Alaska (2015), and Oregon (2015) to draw from.

Because Baker, and most of the Massachusetts lawmakers, were publically opposed to the legalization law, recreational marijuana proponents are skeptical of the motives behind the delay. They point out that the delay, in addition to frustrating those who expected the timeframe for the rollout to be similar to those in other states, will cost the state six months of much-needed tax revenue, at a time when the state has been forced to cut public services due to lack of funds.

The lack of public scrutiny added to the mistrust. Even the Boston Globe’s editorial page criticized the process, writing that, “Whatever the merits of the decision, though, making changes to laws without voting isn’t how an accountable, representative government is supposed to function. Going forward, the Legislature should ensure that changes to the marijuana law follow normal legislative procedures… Opinions on the marijuana law… are bound to vary. But supporters and opponents should be able to agree that when the Legislature amends a voter initiative, those changes should be aired, debated, and voted on in the most transparent way possible.”

Adding to the frustration is that the legislature is involved at all in this, since the whole point of ballot initiatives is to go around the legislative body when they stand in the way of the people’s will. The delay is feared to be part of an obstructionist agenda.

In Maine, for example, controversial Governor Paul LePage (R) has incorrectly called ballot initiatives “recommendations.” His administration recently announced that it wouldn’t enforce the state’s new minimum wage law, which passed by more than 10 points, for restaurant servers for at least the first month.

Even though this supposedly means just a month-long delay, progressives are particularly worried that this could serve as a template for politicians to undermine ballot initiatives they don’t like.

The recreational marijuana initiative has passed, and the people have spoken. Now it’s up to the legislature to enact it in a safe and timely manner.