Beacon Hill is wisely anticipating the possibility of recreational marijuana legalization through referendum. In doing so, it must strike a balance between regulating and tying in knots.
The Legislature doesn't care much for ballot questions, and for the most part that is understandable. The questions tend to be too broad and don't anticipate the details and pitfalls that lawmakers are left to address. In the case of the legalization of recreational marijuana, the near universal opposition of top Beacon Hill officials makes them even more unhappy with the referendum question that appears likely to be on the November 8 ballot.
Still, the lawmakers have been doing their due diligence, including sending a delegation to Colorado, where recreational sales are permitted, to nose around in shops and dispensaries offering pot in a variety of forms and related paraphernalia. On Tuesday, the Senate issued a report citing the perils of marijuana, some more legitimate than others. What should be acknowledged is that legalizing marijuana would get law authorities out of the business of chasing pot crimes in a throwback to Prohibition and would address the hypocrisy of banning marijuana while legalizing alcohol.
Among the report's strong points is the recommendation that the legal sales age for tobacco be raised to 21 to cover all forms of smoking, including marijuana. A bill raising the smoking age from 18 has been recommended for passage by the Joint Committee on Public Health.
While the proposed referendum question from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts would allow the growing of 12 marijuana plants per household, the Senate report recommends a ban on home-grown because it could not be tested for safety and would be a potential nuisance to other residents in a multi-family dwelling. The latter is a particularly good argument given that residents already must deal with poisonous cigarette smoke in apartment buildings or condos where smoking is not banned.
The proposed referendum would impose a 3.75 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales atop the sales tax and would enable communities to levy an additional 2 percent tax. The ability to raise state revenue from marijuana sales is a better argument in favor than the comparable argument made for casinos in a glutted industry. The report's recommendation that the sale of marijuana products of particular appeal to youth be prohibited is too vague, and because this prohibition would potentially destroy the edible marijuana business, it could be interpreted as a bid to sabotage the law from within.
One issue that must be addressed at some point is the contradiction involved in legalizing marijuana at the state level while it is still illegal on the federal level. In Washington, federal health and law enforcement officials have criticized Colorado without taking steps to shut down the state's marijuana operations. That is something that could change following the shake-up of a federal election in November. The state report recommends a study of the possible federal ramifications of Massachusetts getting into the recreational marijuana business.
While there is no predicting the outcome of a referendum vote, state and national polls indicate that many residents are skeptical of the dangers of marijuana, are not convinced that it is a gateway drug, and believe law enforcement time, money and personnel could be better employed combatting abuse of heroin and other deadly drugs. These views cannot be discounted.
The Legislature is taking seriously its responsibility to craft a recreational marijuana law that factors in many possible ramifications should voters approve such an initiative. However, given the opposition to the legalization of marijuana of many lawmakers, as well as Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, lawmakers must avoid the temptation to cross the line between regulating and undermining in crafting a law.