The Argument: Were state leaders right to delay by six months the start of recreational marijuana sales?
Senator Richard J. Ross
State senator, Wrentham Republican
In November 2012, voters in Massachusetts passed a ballot question to legalize medical marijuana, with the intent of having 35 dispensaries up and running by the end of 2013. The legislature did not intervene, and there were significant delays. Today, we only have nine dispensaries operating in the entire state.
Question 4, last November’s ballot question that has since legalized recreational marijuana, is a lengthy document. Many felt it did not satisfactorily address all the issues associated with implementing and enforcing this new law and its unintended consequences.
The six-month delay in the implementation of recreational marijuana is necessary to ensure more time for the Legislature to improve the measure and revisit issues not addressed in its original language. The delay does not impact recreational use, personal possession, or home growing provisions which went into effect Dec. 15.
This delay will only affect the retail sales of recreational marijuana, which according to the ballot measure’s timeline, would not have begun until January 2018. Some of those working on the retail sales delay had pushed for a two-year delay; compared to that, a six-month delay seems to be a reasonable compromise. In reality, the six-month delay is a fairly brief postponement for something that would not have taken effect for an entire year.
In the months leading up to Election Day, Governor Charles Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo all said publicly that if the question passed, they would look at revising the law to address any gaps in the ballot questions. With only one week before the informal session was to end, the Legislature needed to move quickly to address the very specific deadlines outlined in Question 4. If the Legislature had waited until the new session, there would likely not have been a vote until March, creating uncertainty for all.
Today, Massachusetts residents can benefit from nearly all of the measures in the recreational marijuana law. The Commonwealth has a great opportunity to learn from and follow in the footsteps of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. If Massachusetts is going to get this right, we are going to need to adhere to a reasonable six-month delay.
Former sportscaster for WBZ-TV, Natick resident
Last November 54 percent of Massachusetts voters backed Question 4, the initiative to legalize and tax marijuana under a regulated system. The new law imposed the same timetables for writing regulations and implementing retail sales followed by other legal states, like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. In December, a handful of legislators voted to delay implementation of retail marijuana sales by six months.
This was a mistake. The Legislature had a chance earlier in the initiative petition process to take up a legalization measure. They did nothing, and voters seized the reins. For legislators to now alter what the voters approved is wrong.
The Legislature’s delay vote contains troubling echoes of the slow, mismanaged rollout of the state’s medical marijuana system. Voters approved medical marijuana in 2012. Five years later, we have less than a dozen dispensaries open across the state. The timetables included in the new law were designed to avoid this very scenario.
Question 4 set up the Cannabis Control Commission and gave it full authority over writing and enforcing regulations. This structure is similar to the state’s approach to many other regulated industries, such as banking, construction, insurance, and health care. Regulators, not legislators, oversee these systems because they possess the expertise to effectively do so.
Delaying retail sales by six months — and hopefully no longer — also extends the period where it is legal to possess marijuana but illegal to sell it. Every legal state has gone through this awkward period, and no other legal state has taken the unwise step of extending it. Only Massachusetts.
Sometimes leadership requires restraint. This is especially so when it comes to the temptation to undo measures passed directly by voters due to legislative inaction. If legislators want to put their stamp on the new law, they can attempt to do so by testifying before the Cannabis Control Commission at the commission’s open meetings. Delaying the new law and initiating changes before the commission has even been appointed is inappropriate.
The delay vote was wrong. The Legislature should show true leadership now by allowing the regulated system approved by voters to move forward without interference.