Mass. citizens panel weighs pros, cons of marijuana legalization
BOSTON >> The strongest reason for voting yes on Question 4 is that a legal and regulated marijuana industry would be safer than the black market since state regulators could test and clearly label the product, according to a 20-voter Citizens' Initiative Review panel, which also concluded that evidence from Colorado that legalization has not squashed the black market is the leading reason to oppose the question.
After four days of accepting testimony, questioning experts and debating among themselves, the 20 voters on the pilot run of the Citizens' Initiative Review (CIR) program late Sunday released their key findings about the ballot question, and the top four statements in favor and in opposition of the question.
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.
The CIR concluded that the proposed law "provides significant control to city and town authorities by allowing safeguards on the operations of marijuana establishments" and "protects business and landlord rights and it prohibits marijuana consumption in public areas." The regulatory system pondered in the ballot law "would be controlled, transparent and accountable," the group concluded.
The group of 20 Massachusetts voters, selected to closely match the demographics of the state electorate, set out not to endorse a yes or no vote on the question, but to give voters as much unvarnished information as possible in the form of pro and con statements.
On the pro side was the safety of a regulated market, the notion that approving the question will create jobs supported by taxes on the sale of marijuana, the ability to "give patients and health providers ready access to marijuana without committing a crime" and that legalization "could help people avoid opiates, addiction and worse problems."
"Question 4 legalizes recreational marijuana in the Commonwealth, creating new jobs and adding to the Massachusetts economy," the CIR panel wrote in its 'pro' statement. "This initiative includes measures for economic sustainability, regulatory responsibility and ensures access to safe products."
On the con side, however, the CIR pointed to evidence provided by a city of Denver official that "the black market continues to thrive and change" in Colorado despite that state legalizing marijuana. The group also pointed to the current inability to test drivers for impairment by marijuana and the "conflicting evidence of an increase in teen use or motor vehicle accidents in states that have legalized recreational use."
"This referendum proposes a questionable means of legalizing recreational marijuana. There is a lack of transparency as many regulatory policies and procedures will not be defined until after the passage of the referendum. The long-term effects of recreational marijuana use on society, not fully understood, present a threat to our communities and roadways. There is a lack of credible evidence regarding the financial stability and economic gains," the panel wrote in its 'con' statement. "The many unknowns in this referendum make it difficult to support Question 4 at this time."
The panel of voters heard from each side of the ballot question three separate times, and from five marijuana policy and health experts over the course of four days of public testimony and deliberation at the Atrium School in Watertown. Trained facilitators helped guide the panel through the deliberations and writing the pro and con statements.
Marijuana advocates have had marked success taking marijuana reform efforts directly to the voters. Possession of less than an ounce of pot was decriminalized by voters in 2008 and four years later voters handily approved the medical use of marijuana. In both years, organized opposition to the ballot measures was almost non-existent.
But this year, the opposition is backed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and is being coordinated by former aides to Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, who also opposes marijuana legalization.
The CIR is a pilot sponsored by Rep. Jonathan 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.
"It's been especially exciting to see the citizen panelists' enthusiasm for this voter-centered process," Hecht said in a statement. "We look forward to seeing whether the voters at large find their fellow citizens' statement useful in making up their own minds on Question 4."
The goal of the CIR pilot program, organizers said, is to see if the process will be beneficial to Massachusetts voters who this year will be asked to weigh in on four questions on the November ballot.
John Gastil, a professor of communications at Penn State University who has studied CIR processes in other states, will conduct a "controlled survey and three focus groups across the state to determine how helpful the Citizens' Statement proves for Massachusetts voters," organizers said.
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