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SCOT LEHIGH

Rewriting the Mass. pot law is a bad idea, but legislators are doing it anyway

Kathryn Rifkin, Joseph Gilmore, and Andy Gaus protested in 2016 in support of the marijuana law.
Kathryn Rifkin, Joseph Gilmore, and Andy Gaus protested in 2016 in support of the marijuana law. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff)

The subject this week at the State House was legally peddling dope, but the subtext?

Let’s call it: regally meddling dopes.

Those would be the House legislators who have decided they must jump in and completely rewrite the law voters passed at the ballot in November. On Wednesday, Representative Mark Cusack, House chairman of the Marijuana Policy Committee, proudly outlined his legislation rewriting the ballot law.

It wasn’t marijuana smoke the Braintree rep was exhaling. No indeed. It was sanctimony, pure and simple. Their legislation might not be popular, said Cusack, but then, he and his fellow House members knew an important truth: “What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.”

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And then there are times like these, when legislation is neither popular nor right.

Meanwhile, heaven help the poor legal-marijuana activist who might have wanted to follow the House effort at completely overhauling their ballot law on TV. The “debate” was long periods of silent recesses, in which members milled about the rostrum like confused tourists consulting a map, punctuated by brief moments in which the presiding officer — for much of the time, rascally Western Mass. patronage king Thomas Petrolati — gaveled through leadership-approved amendments that were neither explained nor debated.

Ah, that House-style democracy!

Now, it is true that ballot questions sometimes need some adjustment. But the wishes of the voters as expressed on the ballot also deserve a certain respect and deference. Like, say, perhaps waiting to see if a ballot law actually works before subjecting it to a complete rewrite.

Here, however, lawmakers have already delayed the starting date for legal marijuana sales. Now the House wants to repeal the entirety of the actual ballot law and replace it with a new plan. That fairly defines high-handed. No wonder, then, that the folks who actually worked to get marijuana legalized were outside the State House this week protesting against the House bill.

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“Essentially they are saying the will of the voters be damned,” said Will Luzier, who managed the ballot campaign.

Credit where it’s due: The Senate prefers a much lighter approach.

“We are attempting to respect the will of the voters,” Senator Pat Jehlen, the Senate marijuana chair, said as Senate debate started Thursday. “We need to restore some trust in government by not overriding the will of the people.” Which vision will prevail remains to be decided, no doubt in a confused last-minute rush before lawmakers leave for the Fourth of July holiday.

To highlight just two problems, the House would more than double what the total taxation on marijuana would be under the ballot law, from 12 percent to 28 percent. And it would take the authority to decide whether to ban marijuana stores in a community away from local voters and instead give it to a community’s elected officials.

The higher tax rate, the activists worry, will give the black market — that is, marijuana dealers who don’t abide by the new law — a distinct price advantage. Luzier says his group is open-minded about a minor adjustment, but that “28 percent is just too high” and “is going to fuel the illicit market.”

And why, exactly, does it make sense to yank the ability to reject pot shops from local voters and give it to municipal officials, who almost by electoral nature are marijuana-averse? That’s directly contrary to the ballot law’s intent.

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“In no other states have we seen anything like this,” says Jim Borghesani, another leader in the ballot-question quest. “We are the only state that delayed the timeline and we are the only state that is looking at a major legislative rewrite. So it is not a flattering distinction for Massachusetts.”

No, but it does suggest a nifty new House motto: “On Beacon Hill, we know better.”


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.