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Different strategies for groups pushing legal marijuana

Massachusetts recently opened its first medical marijuana dispensaries.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Two groups will file petitions for ballot measures Wednesday that would legalize marijuana for recreational adult use in Massachusetts, likely setting the stage for a fierce battle at the November 2016 ballot box.

But there's another slow-burning conflict.

The groups' efforts represent two fundamentally different philosophies on legalization. One would create a new regulation, taxation, and bureaucratic regimen for marijuana with similarities to the way alcohol is overseen in Massachusetts. The other is more focused on individual liberty, avoiding heavy regulation or any special taxes on the substance.

At the core of the divide are questions about personal freedom, the right role of government, and to what degree marijuana commerce should be overseen by the state. But there's also another issue at play: What would a majority of Massachusetts voters support next fall?


Voters in four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana for recreational use.

And robust majorities of Massachusetts voters have already approved two measures easing marijuana laws in recent years. In 2008 voters okayed a ballot question that made possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by just a civil fine. In 2012, voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. How legalization is framed in 2016 will probably affect the outcome of the expected vote.

The ballot question committees are poised to submit their petitions — signed by 10 voters and shared early with the Globe — to Attorney General Maura Healey.

Should the proposals pass constitutional muster with her, the groups can begin the arduous process of gathering the tens of thousands of additional voter signatures needed to put an item on the ballot.

At this preliminary stage, it's not clear if two marijuana legalization questions might make the ballot, though that is technically possible.


The proposal from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts would create a new "Cannabis Control Commission" with members appointed by the state treasurer to oversee a system that includes marijuana stores and other facilities.

The measure would impose a 3.75 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales, in addition to the state's 6.25 percent sales tax — and it would also allow cities and towns to levy an additional 2 percent tax that they could keep. Among other aspects of the proposed law: It would allow adults to grow up to six marijuana plants in their home, would give a leg up to medical marijuana dispensaries that want to become retail stores, and set a January 2018 timeframe for when retail sales could commence.

The Campaign is backed by a well-funded national group, the Marijuana Policy Project. That's the same organization that spent big on the successful 2012 campaign for legalization in Colorado. Several local activists, including a top official at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, are involved with the Campaign's Massachusetts push.

Meanwhile, Bay State Repeal, who a spokesman says is backed solely by local activists, is poised to submit three versions of a legalization measure to the attorney general. The sales tax would apply to marijuana sales, but none of the versions would add additional taxes.

The Bay State Repeal versions have less regulation than their rival group's proposed law. They don't limit the number of marijuana plants an individual can grow for their own use, and they create several additional legal protections for users of the drug.


Steve Epstein, spokesman for Bay State Repeal, said the group would begin collecting signatures backing the version it determines to be the strongest.

The group's most libertarian version would essentially legalize the cultivation, purchase, possession, and consumption of marijuana for people 21 and over without creating any special regulatory scheme to oversee the newly legal substance or commerce in it. It would create some new sections of the law to penalize people for selling or giving the drug to people under 21. The other versions include what Epstein characterized as a "light" regulatory structure.

"We think a free market is the better course," said Epstein, a lawyer from Georgetown.

He said what he found most "intolerable" about the proposal from Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts is "the tax, the limit on how many plants you can have, and the creation of a brand new bureaucracy" in the state.

Epstein predicted that the proposed marijuana tax — which could ultimately total 12 percent with the state sales tax — would be a boon for the those selling marijuana outside legal channels.

"That's a pretty good margin for the black market, better than most grocers are making on carrots," he said.

And he argued that the difference between his group's measures and the Campaign's proposal is "between individual liberty and safeguarding the profiteers."

Whitney A. Taylor, a signatory of the Campaign's petition, director of public advocacy at the ACLU of Massachusetts, and the manager of the winning 2008 state ballot effort to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, said that's bunk.


She said that the more regulation-heavy proposal would not infringe on anyone's civil liberties, but rather thoughtfully move an important public policy goal forward while protecting public safety.

"The reality is marijuana is not a completely innocuous substance. It's not air," she said.

As for worries about the black market, she said the proposed marijuana tax was not too much and "you have to remember there is a black market in everything — tobacco, shoes, jeans! The fact is, there will always be people who are willing to break the law to make a little more money."

Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Campaign, declined to comment on the rival proposals but said, "We put together a proposal that we think has the best chance of being passed by Massachusetts voters and is the best solution to the failure of prohibition."

Regardless of specifics, several prominent Massachusetts politicians — from Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, to Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, a Democrat — have lined up against legalization.

So however the battle over how marijuana ought to be legalized plays out, there's likely to be a larger one on whether it's a good idea for Massachusetts.

Joshua Miller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.