Massachusetts Lawmakers Justify Tinkering with Marijuana Legalization

Almost 1.8 million people in Massachusetts voted to legalize marijuana in November. But did they really mean to do that?

It’s a ridiculous question to pose about a simple yes-or-no ballot proposition, but such are the mental gymnastics now being played by a pair of Massachusetts lawmakers, who are—unfortunately—now tasked with rewriting the voter-approved law. And they’re doing it for a governor who has made his distaste for legalization well known.

Massachusetts voters handily approved legalization in November, approving Question 4 by nearly seven percentage points, despite opposition from nearly every major state politician, including Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Since then, possession of small amounts of cannabis for adults 21 and over has become legal, but elected officials have done everything they can to delay or outright undo much else.

A handful of lawmakers called a special, sparsely-attended holiday session to delay the opening of recreational marijuana stores by six months. In January, a key state senator introduced legislation to sharply reduce the amount of cannabis adults can possess and grow at home—and delay the first legal, over-the-counter sale by two years.

Now, state Senator Patricia Jehlen and Rep. Mark Cusack are open to making more “major changes” to the voter-approved law, changes due on Baker’s desk by June.

Possible tweaks could include raising the tax rate, giving local municipalities more leeway to limit the number of marijuana retail outlets and messing with plant and possession limits. As they explained to the Boston Globe, they can justify doing this because the voters weren’t quite sure what they were doing with their ‘yes’ votes:

“I don’t think the voters were expressing deep engagement with every single sentence,” Jehlen said in a telephone interview. But I think the concept of allowing people to own and use and grow marijuana legally, that is what is our mandate, to protect that.”

Cusack concurred. “I think the will of the voters is they wanted recreational marijuana, not that they sat there and read every word of the ballot measure before they voted for it. It was really: Do you want it or do you not?”

This is disingenuous at best—and in Jehlen, this is coming from one of marijuana’s biggest supporters.

Like other legalization measures in other states approved last fall, Question 4 set clear basic rules on cultivation, possession and when they could expect sales. Whether Cusack and Jehlen tinker with bureaucratic minutiae or make fundamental changes remains to be seen—Jehlen, at least, says that reducing the number of plants allowed “would be an error”—but to suggest that voters didn’t quite understand what they were doing is unbelievably patronizing.

It’s also a dangerous precedent.

The voter initiative process exists to give the public an alternative to professional lawmakers, who have proven less reliable than Congress on “controversial” issues like cannabis legalization—and who are often beholden to special interest money’s outsized influence (and, thanks to gerrymandered districts, enjoy phenomenal job security). 

If the same lawmakers who citizens were trying to write out of the process sneak back in to tinker, what’s the point?

It’s just as fair to redo lawmakers’ votes or rewrite their legislation on the basis that voters didn’t expect it. Jehlen and Cusack should be taken at their word that they aren’t out to repeal the will of the voters, but their colleagues’ outright hostility to that same will doesn’t inspire confidence.

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