MA Committee Fears Marijuana Legalization, Recommends Strict Regulations

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Special Senate Committee On Marijuana released a report analyzing the potential “policy ramifications” of legalized marijuana for recreational use—a reform voters will decide on November’s ballot. While claiming that the committee had not taken “an official position” on the legalization initiative, the report boasts a dearth of reasons why marijuana legalization could be harmful to the state and is mute on the potential benefits of the policy change. 

The report cites “concerns” that marijuana legalization may increase youth access, stoned drivers would endanger residents and tax revenues would not offset spending on the social consequences of legalization. Other pressing issues were edible marijuana products marketed as appealing to children, the persistence of the black market post-legalization and suggested that high-THC marijuana may make the drug more “addictive” today than it was in the past. 

To keep marijuana out of the hands of youth and reduce marijuana "addiction"—from which the report claims 1 in 9 pot-smokers suffer—the committee suggests strict rules on marketing and advertising, including a ban on celebrity endorsements.

Should Massachusetts voters go ahead and implement legalization, the report recommended a steeper tax rate than the current initiative allows, a ban on home growing, a THC limit for incapacitated driving and THC limits per edible and serving size per package, among other regulations.

Advocates for marijuana legalization in Massachusetts say they are unsurprised by the report’s cautionary tone. Massachusetts’ most powerful elected officials have been critical of marijuana of late, including over the weekend, when the state’s most influential leaders—Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey—published an op-ed urging voters not to support the November legalization initiative. 

Before the report’s release, all but two members of the committee have either outright stated their opposition to legalization or suggested as much. The first member of the committee, Senator Jason Lewis (D-Middlesex), said that he was waiting to take a position on legalization until the report’s release, but admitted he opposed decriminalization in 2008 and medical marijuana in 2012, explaining that his main concert was “about protecting young people.” 

In January, committee member Senator John Keenan (D-Northfolk-Plymouth) told the Boston Globe,  “We haven’t been able to properly regulate medical marijuana and casinos; it would be crazy to introduce recreational marijuana, which will have even greater impacts on the health, safety and education of the public. ”

On Monday, three committee members—Senators Michael Moore (D-Millbury), Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) and Mike Rodrigues (D-Westport)—made their opinions crystal clear when they testified against a bill similar to the ballot initiative.

A big factor in the committee members’ positions was their recent trip to Colorado, where they learned the ins-and-outs of the legal market. After that trip, Senator Richard Ross (R-Wrentham) said he did not think there was a “public good” in legalization and would be voting no on the ballot. Senator Michael Rodrigues' (D-Westport) support of legalization changed to opposition after the trip. On Wednesday, he told reporters, "The black market doesn't go away because it's so well-established.”

The Colorado trip included a lot of discussion with police officers, which advocates for marijuana legalization say inserted a bias into the report.

“Asking law enforcement or prohibition enforcers about prohibition reform is like asking corporate lobbyists about campaign finance reform. You just can't expect to get accurate information,” local attorney and activist for marijuana legalization in Massachusetts Michael Cutler told HIGH TIMES. 

Mason Tvert, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project, says that, to assess the success of marijuana legalization, the committee should look at how regulation shifted the opinion of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. In June of last year, Hickenlooper, who had opposed marijuana legalization, took a more nuanced stance: "It hasn't been the economic miracle, the economic sensation that people thought it was going to be," he said, "But at the same time, it hasn't been the nightmare that a lot of us skeptics and critics thought it would be."

Similarly, Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst acknowledged in the Boston Globe that marijuana legalization was not as disastrous as she expected.  

“There are a certain number of folks, like myself, who were pretty reticent about it to begin with,” Hullinghorst said. "The sky didn’t fall. Everything seems to be working pretty well.”

Senator James Welch (D-Hampden), who on Tuesday said he had not made a decision on the initiative yet, said rationality must prevail.

“Whether we like it or not, whether you’re in favor of legalization or not, marijuana is here,” Welch said. “We can’t put our heads in the sand and say if the ballot question isn’t going to pass, marijuana use among adults and youth is going to go away.” 

After the report’s release, Senator Linda Dorcena Forry (D-1st Suffolk) appeared to support the notion of marijuana legalization, but reserved concerns about specifics of the law. 

I support responsible adult use of marijuana; however, the current question facing voters on the ballot in November is broad and does not address serious concerns regarding regulations of production and sale of edible marijuana-based products,” she said in a statement.

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