Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Chill people, the pot law needs fixing

A vendor points out the variety of marijuana for sale at the grand opening of the Seattle location of the Northwest Cannabis Market, for sales of medical marijuana products, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. The market hosts nine permanent vendors for seven-day-a-week sales, as well as a number of daily vendors of a variety dried medicines, edible products and starts. Voters in Washington state last fall passed Initiative 502, which legalizes the recreational possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and calls for the creation of state-licensed pot growers, processors and retail stores. Recreational marijuana sales are expected to begin late this year, and in the meantime, the state’s medical marijuana industry continues to operate. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press/File

TAKE A CHILL PILL, pot lovers.

It’s reasonable for the state to push back on a timetable dictated by the marijuana industry and its anything-but-mellow effort to begin making millions off of Massachusetts weed.

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As of Dec. 15, marijuana was legal to possess in Massachusetts but illegal to sell until January 2018. The law — passed by referendum vote last November — was crafted that way for a purpose. Proponents deliberately created a legal gray period, which they cited as a reason why the state should not delay the opening of recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts. However, a bill signed into law last week by Governor Charlie Baker does just that, by delaying marijuana sales by six months, from January to June 2018.

I voted no on Question 4 primarily because it was written by the cannabis industry to benefit the cannabis industry. My perspective on that has not changed. A “yes” vote not only legalized marijuana. It also imposed a strict timetable, giving Massachusetts a year to set up a cannabis control commission to regulate the sale, possession, and use of recreational marijuana. According to the language of the voter-approved ballot question, if the state failed to do what’s demanded of it by January 2018, the marijuana industry would then take matters into its own hands.

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On principle, that’s just wrong. The state is right to assert control over the process.

The ballot question affirmed by voters also established a low 3.75 percent tax on marijuana, which won’t cover the cost of regulating it. It also allows marijuana edibles, without any packaging restrictions. Tweaks that raise the tax and address public policy concerns about safety make sense and don’t violate the basic spirit of the law. Delaying implementation by six months does not significantly thwart the will of the people when it comes to getting high. Getting this right over time matters more than enforcing the right to sell marijuana by a specific date.

As Senate President Stanley L. Rosenberg, who supported the ballot question, explained, “What we’re doing is working on the details.” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who opposed the ballot question, said the six-month delay gives the state a chance to work out specific issues. But DeLeo also recognized the need to “make sure the will of the voters is carried out.” Baker, who also opposed the ballot question, said a six-month delay is “perfectly appropriate.” And so it is.

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Worse things can happen to laws passed by the people. Massachusetts lawmakers killed a “Clean Elections” law, passed by referendum in 1998, which called for public financing of campaigns. Lawmakers also ignored a voter-approved measure to gradually reduce the state income tax to 5 percent by fiscal year 2003. Instead, they froze the rate at 5.3 percent, until tax revenues maintained a certain stability, and accepted any political consequences.

In this case, the marijuana industry quickly huffed and puffed its indignation. As Isaac Dietrich, CEO of MassRoots, a Colorado-based company in the marijuana business, told the State House News Service, “It’s a shame a small group of legislators are working to undermine the will of millions of voters in Massachusetts. We’ll be mobilizing our community of hundreds of thousands of cannabis consumers to get this decision reversed early next year.”

Remember, state lawmakers stared down citizens who wanted tax cuts. How hard can it be to withstand pressure from “mobilized” cannabis users?

It says a lot about the world we live in when the right to escape reality is what fires people up. Still, there’s a higher public interest at stake than the people’s desire to get high and an industry’s desire to prey on it.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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