A lot of people suddenly want to know what Democratic Senator Jason Lewis thinks about marijuana.
“What I say is that I have had concerns in the past about liberalizing our marijuana policy,” said Lewis, the new chairman and sole member of the state Senate’s Special Committee on Marijuana. “I did oppose decriminalization in 2008, and I did oppose medical marijuana in 2012, when it was on the ballot. And the reason was simply because my concern is about protecting young people.”
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg asked Lewis to take on a months-long study of marijuana policies in reaction to a bill and a widely expected 2016 ballot measure seeking to legalize its recreational use. The committee will not address whether Massachusetts should legalize recreational use of marijuana. Instead, Lewis has been charged with examining the hundreds of judgments and decisions lawmakers may need to make if full legalization of marijuana is approved.
“Would it be a commercial market?” Lewis, of Winchester, asked. “Would it be a nonprofit market? Would it be a state-run monopoly like some states have for their liquor industry? What would the rules be in terms of licensing requirements? What kind of regulatory framework would we have in terms of what types of products are allowed?”
Senate members from nearly every legislative committee are expected to be called upon as Lewis delves into aspects of marijuana policy. The loosely knit group will also explore what stymied the implementation of medical marijuana after it was passed by a ballot measure in 2012.
The job was not one he asked for, Lewis said. But the Democrat, who represents the 5th Middlesex District, credits Rosenberg with being proactive. Colleagues say Lewis, who was also named this year as chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, was the right choice to take on what is expected to be a highly-scrutinized task.
“It will be a very balanced commission and very thoughtful,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler. “He will be extremely fair, making no judgments ahead of time.”
Chandler has worked with Lewis to form the “Prevention for Health Caucus,” an effort promoting wellness and prevention programs as a way to drive down health care costs. She said Lewis’s passion for improving health care, his process of problem solving, and his educational background will bring a unique perspective to examining marijuana policy.
“He has a very controversial job, but he is going to steer away from controversy and look at the facts,” Chandler said. “If we knee jerk this, we are in trouble.”
Lewis, a native of South Africa, came to the United States when he was 12 years old.
“Having witnessed the impact of apartheid first hand, issues of human rights and social justice have always been important to me. I see public service as a way to have an impact,” he said.
Lewis grew up in New Jersey. He graduated with a degree in economics from Harvard College. While attending Harvard Business School, he met his wife, Susan, on a blind date. They have two daughters.
He helped build two successful software companies and worked at a business consulting firm before running for his first House seat in 2008. He has advocated banning the sale of e-cigarettes and other smokeless tobacco products to minors, and will push to strengthen those laws this year.
He likens the study of marijuana policies to the one Massachusetts underwent before legalizing casino gambling. But Lewis is working on a tighter deadline than the years-long debate on gambling since a ballot question is expected to go before voters in 2016. A petition to legalize marijuana for recreational use has to be submitted to the attorney general for review and certification by Aug. 5.
“I can tell you that the process of drafting will be starting in earnest in about another month and will be pretty well finished by early summer,” said Michael Cutler, a Northampton lawyer who has previously represented clients seeking medical marijuana licenses.
Lewis must finish his work by the end of 2015, just days before the Legislature could consider a petition. He has already met with an owner of a dispensary business in Colorado who started in the medical marijuana business and now sells it for recreational use. Experts from Massachusetts and others states from around the country are expected to take part in Lewis’s review. Colorado will be one state he will examine closely.
“That’s a real laboratory for what happens,” he said. “You can speculate about what’s likely to occur when you go down this road to legal marijuana for recreational use. But it’s not the same thing as actually seeing that in practice.”
Lewis said despite his concerns about legalization, he is approaching his assignment with an open a mind.
“And yes, the answer is I have smoked marijuana. But not in a very long time,” he offered without prompting. “And if someone tells you they haven’t, they probably are lying.”