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Baker renews call for federal government to end marijuana prohibition

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is renewing his call for the federal government to end its blanket prohibition on marijuana and allow states to set their own policies on the drug.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is renewing his call for the federal government to end its blanket prohibition on marijuana and allow states to set their own policies on the drug. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file 2019/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is renewing his call for the federal government to end its blanket prohibition on marijuana and allow states to set their own policies on the drug.

Baker, who led the campaign against the 2016 ballot initiative that ultimately legalized cannabis in the state, was among 12 governors from both parties to sign a letter released Tuesday calling for reforms to federal marijuana policy.

The letter, addressed to congressional leaders, endorses the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (or STATES) Act, legislation sponsored by Senators Cory Gardner and Elizabeth Warren that would remove federal penalties for marijuana-related activity that is legal under state law.

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“The STATES Act is a logical step for Congress because it honors state action by codifying protection at the federal level for those businesses and consumers operating in accordance with state law,” the letter signed by Baker reads in part. “The STATES Act is not about whether marijuana should be legal or illegal; it is about respecting the authority of states to act, lead and respond to the evolving needs and attitudes of their citizens. Whether a state maintains its prohibition of cannabis or chooses a different path, the STATES Act ensures that the federal government is a partner rather than an impediment.”

The letter also praised separate legislation that would free up banks and other financial institutions to work with state-approved marijuana growers and sellers, saying it would alleviate the security risks and regulatory headaches posed by today’s cash-intensive cannabis industry.

Besides Baker, the governors of California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Vermont also signed the letter; it follows a similar effort endorsed by Baker last year.

Baker’s office declined to comment beyond the letter. However, officials in his administration characterized the governor’s support of the legislation as pragmatic, saying Massachusetts voters have spoken on the issue and that removing federal restrictions would make it easier to safely administer the state’s blossoming recreational pot market.

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Several activists and marijuana business groups — including the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association and the Commonwealth Dispensary Association — cheered the governor’s endorsement of the STATES Act, saying bipartisan support will be vital to boost pending federal reforms.

Kim Napoli, a marijuana activist and executive who was appointed by Baker to the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board, added that she’s ready to forgive the governor’s past stance.

“His opposition to legalization wasn’t a shining moment, but this is a good step on the path to redemption,” she said. “This to me is a sign of his willingness to work together, which is more important than arguing about who said what four years ago. I hope he’s with us for the long haul.”

Others, though, sneered at Baker’s signature, saying the governor has consistently lagged behind his constituents on marijuana policy.

“Baker is not brave,” said Sieh Samura, a US Army veteran and entrepreneur who is seeking marijuana licenses in the state. “If he can legalize weed without changing anything much, then I think he will follow the rest. But he has never been a leader on cannabis.”

Jim Borghesani, the former spokesman for the 2016 legalization campaign, also criticized Baker’s “bare minimum” approach to cannabis issues.

Following the vote, “Governor Baker . . . has done exactly what he is required to do and no more when it comes to supporting these new businesses and new jobs,” Borghesani said. “That makes his signing of this letter a welcome and unexpected development. Maybe we’ll see him visit a [marijuana] store someday and thank them for the new tax revenue.”

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The Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, a group of public health advocates, blasted the STATES Act, saying it “does much more than honor state action; it exempts high potency candies, gummies, and vapes from the Controlled Substances Act, which federally legalizes them and allows their advertising.”

Baker has not sought to block the implementation of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts. However, he has drawn criticism from advocates for pressuring the Cannabis Control Commission in 2018 to drop initial plans for pot delivery and social consumption businesses, and more recently for pushing an antistoned driving bill that critics worry could violate drivers’ civil liberties.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.