Just a day after voters legalized marijuana for recreational use, Massachusetts’ top regulator called on the Legislature to extend the deadline for opening retail shops beyond the January 2018 target date so she has time to build an effective oversight force.
Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg also said Wednesday lawmakers should hike the 3.75 percent tax on marijuana sales included in the new law so there will be enough money to police the industry and have some cash left over. And Goldberg wants legislators to ax a provision allowing people to grow up to 12 marijuana plants per household, which she believes could gut the retail market and be detrimental to public health and safety.
“If the world is moving toward recreational marijuana, then we have to do it correctly. And I believe that we can,” she said in a State House interview. But “nobody wants to do this in a sloppy fashion.”
The ballot initiative, passed by 54 to 46 percent, allows recreational use on Dec. 15 and retail stores to open at the beginning of 2018.
Governor Charlie Baker and legislative leaders pledged Wednesday to respect the will of the voters, but they suggested they could change parts of the law.
“I believe that when voters vote on most ballot questions, they are voting in principle. They are not voting on the fine detail that is contained within the proposal,” Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said. The Amherst Democrat noted that the timetable was “very aggressive” and could be ripe for change.
Legalization backers, however, balked at the prospect of state officials changing the timeline, tax, or home-growing provisions.
Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the victorious Question 4 effort, said, “We oppose lawmakers taking any action on any of these components in the initiative.”
The more-than-8,000-word law directs the treasurer, by March 1 of next year, to appoint a three-person Cannabis Control Commission, which has oversight responsibilities for the new industry. Under the law, the commission must create a slew of regulations — on everything from advertising to measures to keep the drug out of the hands of children — by Sept. 15, and must begin accepting applications for shops, testing facilities, marijuana farms, and manufacturers of cannabis-infused products by Oct. 1, 2017.
Goldberg said people don’t think about how difficult it will be to create a seed-to-sale tracking system that will allow regulators to follow each marijuana plant for the duration of its life. Such a system would be aimed at preventing diversion to the black market.
“To get an IT project up and running and faultless without going thorough a pilot, and testing it, and doing the like,” she said, trailing off and shaking her head.
And she underscored what it will take to create a state agency with lawyers, investigators, accountants, computer specialists, and support staff.
But Borghesani said the framers of the law imposed reasonable dates. “Colorado had the same timeframe to write and enact its regulations — and they did it,” he said. “I just don’t like the implication that Massachusetts is less efficient or less competent than Colorado, or any other state.”
California and Nevada also voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana on Tuesday, and a measure in Maine remained too close to call on Wednesday.
Goldberg sounded a similar warning about the proposed marijuana law in the spring. But her words took on a new urgency Wednesday, as the state faces a real deadline to implement the law or take steps to delay it.
The law allows adults to begin using, possessing, and growing limited amounts of marijuana on Dec. 15. But retail sales of the drug can’t commence until January 2018, creating a legal gray zone.
The measure would impose a 3.75 percent tax on pot sales, in addition to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. It would also give cities and towns the right to add an additional 2 percent tax on local marijuana sales.
But the rate in other legalization states is much higher, and Goldberg said lawmakers should hike it to fund all regulatory activity “and go beyond — we need revenue in this state!” She did not specifiy a proposed amount of the additional tax.
Borghesani countered, saying the rate spelled out in the law strikes the right balance. It’s high enough to bring in sufficient funds for regulation, but low enough to quickly smother the black market, he said.
The treasurer also expressed worry at the prospect of people across the state growing their own marijuana at home, which wouldn’t be subject to state regulation or taxes and could be diverted to the black market.
“I think that if you are concerned about revenues — which I think the treasurer should be — I see home-grown [marijuana] as a way around actually even creating revenues. So, yes, I would push for home-grown to be eliminated,” she said. “Washington State doesn’t have home-grown, and I think it’s to their benefit.”
But Borghesani said the provision is a key part of the law. Undoing it would fly in the face of what Massachusetts voters said they want, he insisted. Also, he said, Colorado and Oregon allow limited home cultivation of marijuana for recreational use with few negative consequences.
Goldberg’s suggestions laid bare the strain between voters’ decisive desire to legalize with the myriad regulatory complications facing Beacon Hill.
“You can end up stretching the meaning of the question so far that it becomes, in practice, very different than what people voted on. That’s not necessarily illegitimate. But that tension is real,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a professor of political science at Stonehill College.
Baker opposed Question 4, along with most top state officials. But speaking to reporters in Boston, the Republican governor said he will respect the voice of residents, while addressing some of the thorny issues legalization creates.
“The people spoke, and we’re going to honor that,” Baker said. “But we need to make sure that we implement this in a way that is consistent with a lot of the rhetoric and the dialogue that took place during the course of the campaign — that it would be done in a way that does protect public safety and ensure that only those who are supposed to have access to these products will.”
Goldberg and her staff have been studying the issue for months, with some top aides traveling to legalization states and researching the best way for Massachusetts to implement the law.
She said she chose not to actively campaign against legalization because she would become the top oversight force if it passed.
And now that voters have approved the measure, the treasurer said she sees it as her responsibility to lay out the business model that makes the most sense — “how we balance the benefits for the state versus the will of the people, and meet the will of the people in a way that works for everyone.”
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.