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Fast-moving debate focuses on marijuana legalization

Under the proposed law, cities and towns could bar marijuana businesses only if local voters agreed to the ban in a referendum.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press/file 2013

An opponent of marijuana legalization argued at a debate Tuesday that the move would create a overly powerful pot industry in Massachusetts, resistant to regulation and bent on selling marijuana-infused gummy bears and other edibles attractive to children.

State Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, suggested the state has already gone far enough by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.

“It is not about whether an adult can use marijuana in their own home — no one’s bothering them today,” he said. “What this is really about is commercializing Big Marijuana in Massachusetts.”

Polls show voters, who will decide a referendum on legalization in November, are leaning in favor. A vote to legalize would amount to a stiff rebuke to the state’s political, medical, and religious establishment.

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A bipartisan group of elected officials including Lewis, Republican Governor Charlie Baker, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a popular Democrat, have come out in opposition. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the state’s four Catholic bishops joined a growing roster of prominent opponents.

The debate was the fourth in a series sponsored by The Boston Globe, WBUR, and the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies on the four ballot questions voters will face in November.

Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the “Yes on 4” campaign who squared off against Lewis, suggested the creation of a marijuana industry in Massachusetts would not be some fearsome development. Instead, he argued, it would mark the end of a decades-long failure with prohibition of the drug.

“We say, let’s look at 100 years of failure and do something about it,” he said. “And we say that something is to actually make it a safe market.” Borghesani said state regulators would ensure marijuana is not spliced with more dangerous drugs. And he predicted tight controls on advertising to children.

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The fast-moving debate, moderated by WBUR radio host Meghna Chakrabarti and Globe reporter Joshua Miller, touched on questions of economics, public health, and local control.

Under the proposed law, cities and towns could bar marijuana businesses only if local voters agreed to the ban in a referendum. Lewis said this requirement that municipalities “opt-out” is burdensome. “This is a huge, huge issue,” he said. “This ballot question is written explicitly to take away control from our communities and our homeowners.”

Even communities that bar marijuana dispensaries and grow houses, he pointed out, would not be able to prevent home growing. And home growing, he suggested, will likely lead to a new black market for pot.

Borghesani said a simple vote by city or town residents to opt out is not overly burdensome. And he brushed off predictions of a new illicit market, with home growers selling pot in neighboring states where the drug remains illegal.

“I think it’s an insult to think that there’s going to be a whole new criminal class that . . . says, ‘I’m going to become a criminal and start selling marijuana because I’m growing at my house,’ ” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

The debaters also sparred over the proposed 3.75 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, with Lewis arguing that it is too low to cover the full costs of legalization — from regulation of the industry to the development of a breathalyzer-style test that could be used to curb drugged driving.

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“It’s not a surprise it’s so low,” he said. “Again, this ballot question was written by the marijuana industry for their interests, and they want to keep the rate low.”

Borghesani said the proposed tax rate is more than sufficient, with tax haul estimates well in excess of the annual budget of the state agency currently responsible for regulating the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol in Massachusetts.

He added that tax revenue in Colorado, which has already legalized marijuana, has helped to pay for new roofs and technology projects in the state’s schools.

Lewis said the promise of a tax revenue bonanza in Colorado had not been fulfilled, calling it “fool’s gold.”


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.