Metro

City Council president, mayor at odds on marijuana referendum

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu’s stance is at odds with that of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2016
Boston City Council President Michelle Wu’s stance is at odds with that of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and Councilor Tito Jackson will formally endorse the state ballot push to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The move, to be announced at a State House event Wednesday morning, puts them directly at odds with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is helping to lead the charge against the referendum.

A 2007 graduate of Harvard College, Wu said she never used the drug but recalled some classmates did during their years in Cambridge.

“It just seems ridiculous that kids at Harvard can smoke pot and have incredibly successful careers while blacks and Latinos, particularly men and boys, who are using the same substance are sent to jail,” she said, voice rising.

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“It doesn’t make sense for our criminal justice system. It doesn’t make sense for our economy. Certainly, there are issues we have to work out for our regulation of it, but I believe we are up to the task,” Wu said. “I will be voting yes on the ballot question.”

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Jackson said the new revenue streams from the effort to legalize and tax marijuana could help fund more treatment beds for people struggling with opioid addiction. He said legalization will help shrink the illegal drug market while creating an industry that brings sustainable jobs to Boston. And, he said, legalization will help address racial disparities in the prosecution of drug crimes.

Both Jackson and Wu have previously expressed support for legalization, but their decision to stand at the State House and formally join with the pro-legalization campaign represents a boost for the effort, which enjoys only limited support from elected officials.

Alex Morse, the 27-year-old mayor of Holyoke, endorsed the legalization question Monday and is poised to participate in the event as well.

But the opposition includes Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. Top medical, business, education, and law enforcement groups — from the Massachusetts Medical Society to the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association — also oppose legalizing retail sales of marijuana.

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Walsh on Tuesday noted the scourge of opioid overdoses across the state. “We’re putting money into reducing addiction,” he said, “and I think legalizing marijuana is the wrong direction to go in.”

Asked about his public stance putting him at odds with Walsh, Jackson, who is seen as having ambitions for higher office, said: “I believe it puts me in line with helping the largest number of people in the city of Boston.”

Wu laughed and said she didn’t have a comment on political ramifications of being on the other side of the mayor on a major policy fight.

Supporters of the measure are likely to back up Wu’s criminal justice argument, that marijuana laws disproportionately affect minorities, by pointing to an American Civil Liberties Union report from June 2013.

According to that study, the arrest rate for marijuana possession in Massachusetts was the lowest in the country after voters in 2008 decriminalized possessing relatively small amounts. But, the report says, “the racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests did not improve — in fact, they grew worse: the arrest rate in 2010 was 61 per 100,000 blacks and 16 per 100,000 whites, a ratio of 3.81.”

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Yet the report is more than three years old and is sure to see pushback from those who oppose the ballot effort.

‘It just seems ridiculous that kids at Harvard can smoke pot and have incredibly successful careers while blacks and Latinos . . . who are using the same substance are sent to jail.’

Michelle Wu, Boston City Council president 

State Senator Jason M. Lewis, who led a committee studying the issue and now is working to defeat legalization, told the Globe earlier this year that some criminal justice worries are unfounded.

He said criminal penalties for marijuana possession of an ounce or less have already been replaced with a system of civil penalties.

And for most adults who use the drug casually, there simply aren’t any criminal sanctions.

“Virtually nobody is actually being arrested and going to jail for marijuana use,” he said at the time, adding that as best as his staff can tell, fewer than 10 people a year are incarcerated for possession of more than an ounce, and most of those people are getting locked up for another offense.

Should voters pass the referendum, possessing, using, and giving away an ounce or less of recreational marijuana would be legal for adults 21 and older as of Dec. 15, and retail sales could begin in January 2018. Marijuana for medical use is already legal in Massachusetts.

The proposed law would create a “Cannabis Control Commission,” with members appointed by the state treasurer to oversee marijuana stores, cultivation facilities, testing facilities, and manufacturers of edible products such as marijuana-infused brownies and sodas.

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 allow cities and towns to levy an additional 2 percent tax that the municipalities could keep.

Voters in four other states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska — and the District of Columbia have approved recreational legalization efforts.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.