When I think about the prospect of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, I surprise myself by sounding like my father. Cannabis tourism? THC-infused lip balm? “Budz and sudz” crawls? What is the world coming to?
The combination of vice and capitalism is a powerful one, so it might be expected that entrepreneurs are rushing to market these artisanal highs. In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, cannabis concierge services are thriving, from ganja yoga retreats to weed weddings. Sales nearly hit $1 billion last year, with the state raking in tax and licensing fees of $135 million.
Like many trends that begin in the libertarian West, commercialized marijuana is coming fast to progressive New England, where all six states have bills or ballot questions pending to create regulated markets for recreational pot. But in Massachusetts, at least, the political establishment is arrayed against the proposition. Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh all oppose the ballot question voters will likely face this November, on the grounds that it poses a public health and safety threat, and that it sends mixed signals to a populace struggling with opioid addiction.
At the risk of my own anti-establishment cred, I find myself mostly agreeing with them. But for different reasons.
Like most Massachusetts citizens, I voted for legalization of medical marijuana when it was on the ballot in 2012. But the chaotic rollout of that measure is a cautionary tale. Recall that within weeks of the election, implementation of the new law was on its way to becoming a fiasco of falsified license applications, shoddy background checks, allegations of corruption and influence-peddling, voided licenses, and lawsuits galore. Communities objected, and licensing stalled, as dispensaries were sited in residential neighborhoods instead of clinics or pharmacies, where they might have maintained at least the patina of therapeutic purpose. Meanwhile, thousands of deserving patients suffered until the first dispensary finally opened in Salem last June. If the state can’t handle a nonprofit medical marijuana market for a limited number of patients, can we reasonably expect it to establish an all-cash, profit-driven buzz bazaar without a hitch?
Part of the problem lies with the ballot process itself, an unsubtle tool for writing complicated public policy. The medical marijuana initiative allowed the state just over a year to establish dispensaries, setting off the gold rush for licenses and all the attendant opportunities for mischief. Similarly, the legalization measure lays out a complex framework for taxes, penalties, packaging, testing, cultivating, inspecting, storage, local approval, and more, and requires an appointed three-member commission to have all the regulations promulgated and to begin issuing licenses by January 2018 – less than 14 months after passage. By bureaucratic standards, that’s head-spinningly fast. State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who would oversee the law, has the right idea trying at least to slow down the juggernaut.
As with legalized gambling, the states are in a competitive frenzy to hatch these golden geese before the market is saturated. It’s beggar-thy-neighbor time, and no one wants to miss out. States are salivating at the prospect of easy revenue without the pain of raising taxes.
But marijuana revenues, like gambling income and other forms of “voluntary taxation,” are a cheap, fractured way to fund public services. Instead of people contributing equitably to the common good, a smaller subset foots the bill. Sure, some people will smoke pot whether it’s for sale at the 7-11 or not. But does the state need to endorse it, or — worse — come to depend on it?
Possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in Massachusetts for seven years. Before we embark on this billion-dollar bender, maybe we should just take a breath.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.