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DeLeo says it would be ‘very difficult’ to support marijuana legalization

House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Tuesday it would be “very difficult” for him to support legislation legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use.

The powerful legislative leader’s comments instantly dimmed the prospects of a bill that would legalize, regulate, and tax recreational use of marijuana in Massachusetts. Some lawmakers are pushing that bill in part to bypass an expected legalization question on the 2016 ballot. They want to have the final say on the law, and intend to craft it with lots of public input, rather than advocates writing it unilaterally.

But if the speaker is not keen on a bill, it’s likely to die long before it gets close to becoming law. And DeLeo does not seem keen to back a legalization bill.

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“It would be very difficult considering I think I’d feel somewhat hypocritical right now if I’m, on the one hand, fighting what I can in terms of drug abuse, to be supporting that as well,” he told reporters at the State House.

DeLeo said he expects a marijuana legalization question to make the 2016 ballot, but said the Legislature could well amend language that voters might pass into law.

“If there were some problems the way it was written, I wouldn’t hesitate, probably, to have the Legislature take a second look and make any necessary changes that we felt had to be made,” DeLeo said.

“Now, of course I give the weight of the vote great consideration, but on the other hand, I would consider this to be such a concern for folks, that I think we would have an obligation — public safety obligation — to take a look at it even after it was passed,” he added.

Some advocates shrugged off DeLeo’s comments about legalization legislation.

“We’ve kind of expected all along that the legislative process would not result in a bill passing, and it would have to be an initiative,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group that backs a 2016 ballot question. “So we’re not terribly surprised.”

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The other top legislative leader has taken a more agnostic stance on legalization.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has said he does not have a strong opinion on it and backs a Senate panel looking into related public policy issues.

But he has also said he thinks “it’s better, if we’re going to do this, to do it in the Legislature than on the ballot” and he believes that if the Legislature doesn’t act on the issue, it will be done on the ballot.

Massachusetts voters gave the green light to measures that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2008 and allowed its use for medical purposes in 2012. But the state has struggled to implement the medical marijuana law.

Many political analysts believe activists will collect the tens of thousands of signatures needed to put a question legalizing the drug for recreational use on the ballot. They also believe it will pass.

Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston all oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use, something four states and the District of Columbia have approved so far.

Many officials opposed to marijuana legalization cite concerns about it being a gateway drug and speak about the scourge of opioid addiction in Massachusetts.

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DeLeo, too, appeared to reference the state’s opioid problems. “Just listening to the number of overdoses that have occurred, continuing to increase in every part of the Commonwealth. So I say, as we’re standing here right now, I’m not sure if ... I could be supportive of that legislation,” he said.

Legalization supporters reject the connection between the opioid crisis and marijuana legalization.

Simon said that marijuana is not going to make the opioid problem worse and regulating marijuana could actually help with that problem by separating the marijuana market from the heroin market.

Representative David M. Rogers, a Cambridge Democrat and a lead sponsor of the legalization bill, had a more philosophical take on DeLeo’s comments.

“I fully respect the speaker’s position,” he said. “The reason I filed it is to foster a constructive public dialog, so I think the hearing process will enable that to happen.”

Regardless of whether legalization passes into law or not through the legislative process, he said, “there’s great value in having a discussion.”


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.