BOSTON >> A panel of 20 Massachusetts voters this summer will jump headfirst into the debate over the marijuana legalization ballot question to produce an independent summary of the question's pros and cons, and give fellow voters easy to understand information on the initiative.
Under the Citizens' Initiative Review, 20 voters and four alternates selected to match the state's demographics will take four days in August to hear from the pro- and anti-legalization campaigns, experts on the subject and others before drafting pro and con statements that can be distributed statewide. The panel will not endorse a yes or no vote on the question, but instead strive to give voters as much unvarnished information as possible.
After briefly deliberating at the State House, the CIR Advisory Board on Tuesday selected Question 4, the ballot question to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, as the question to be studied in part because of a feeling that the question could generate more confusion among voters than the other three questions and because of the broad interest in the topic.
"The high profile of the question and the degree of public interest in it means the statement that the citizens panel produces will get a lot of attention. It is a very complicated issue," said Rep. Jonathan Hecht, who helped launch the new effort. "It involves law enforcement, it involves public health, it involves issues of youth, it involves issues of driving, issues of taxation, a whole range of issues – I think their feeling was it would be very helpful for voters to hear a real thorough assessment of the pros and cons."
The CIR is a pilot program sponsored by Hecht, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and Healthy Democracy, which implemented a similar citizens' initiative review system in Oregon in 2011.
The advisory board includes former Gov. Michael Dukakis, Assistant House Minority Leader Brad Hill, Sen. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth), former state Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston, MassVOTE board member Rachael Cobb and MassVOTE board chairman George Pillsbury.
"The voters guides we have gotten in the past, they're very confusing sometimes. My hope is that with this pilot program this is going to be put into layman's terms – this is why you should be supporting or why you should not," Hill said after the meeting, which was closed to the press. "I want to know when I go in to vote on the marijuana question what all the pros are and what all the cons are, and I want to be able to understand it. And that's what I hope this will do."
Dukakis said he thinks the CIR process will be helpful to voters, particularly given that the marijuana question seems to be a "dead heat."
"I like this process. This is going to be a great thing for people to get educated about these ballot referenda," the former governor said. "Oftentimes it's very confusing and I think that we picked the marijuana one to focus on is a good thing. I think there is a lot of confusion out there, people don't really understand it that well."
Question 4 would impose a 3.75 percent state excise tax on retail marijuana sales, allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public, and establish a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee the new industry, among other provisions.
Though he said prohibition "doesn't work that well," Dukakis said he is bothered by the "constant refrain" that the question is about recreational marijuana use.
"I mean, there is nothing recreational about this. It's an addictive drug and one I think we need to take very seriously," the Brookline Democrat said.
Asked whether he supports or opposes the ballot question, Dukakis said, "I'm thinking about it seriously, but I'm concerned about the consequences. I don't think what we're seeing in Colorado is encouraging."
Hill said he is looking forward to the CIR's final product and expects to use it the same way any other voter would.
"I'm actually learning, as all the citizens are, what the pros and cons are," the Ipswich Republican said of the question. "I was somebody who felt, you know, go ahead and legalize it, tax it and do all those things. But now that I'm starting to see what the ramifications are, I certainly question it now."
From Aug. 25 through Aug. 28 at the Atrium School in Watertown, the 20-citizen panel, led by professional moderators, will conduct a sort of public hearing on the ballot question, inviting testimony from supporters, opponents and policy experts.
The panel will then put together its statement of findings and disseminate it in September and October, using traditional and social media. Once the process is over, Hecht said, researchers from Penn State will conduct an independent review to evaluate the CIR's process, deliberations and impact on voter understanding.