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Ask the right questions about marijuana

errata carmona for the boston globe

Voters shouldn’t let the similar rhetoric of the state’s two marijuana legalization efforts fool them: The groups are pursuing very different goals. One, Bay State Repeal, would remove almost all restrictions on cannabis cultivation, possession, and use for adults. The other, pushing a more complicated proposal, would create a cumbersome regulatory framework that seems as concerned with creating a hospitable environment for the nascent marijuana industry as extending rights to citizens.

Both have their flaws, but for voters who favor marijuana legalization, the choice should be clear: Sign Bay State Repeal’s petition to get its question on the 2016 ballot. Even voters with no interest in marijuana have a stake in which version of legalization makes it onto next year’s ballot. Massachusetts doesn’t need another industry ripe for special-interests politics, yet that is just what the second, flawed proposal from a group called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts could invite.

The choice has come into focus after both legalization proposals won approval from the attorney general’s office, a procedural determination that allowed the campaigns to begin signature-gathering this fall. Both plans still need 64,750 signatures from registered voters this year, and another 10,792 in 2016, before either can appear on the ballot. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol says it has cleared the first hurdle, though it’s always possible that both proposals will ultimately fall short. Still, there’s no mistaking the growing momentum toward legalization. Opponents promise a vigorous campaign if either plan makes the ballot, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says that he will spearhead the antilegalization effort if no one else will. But realistically, there’s a good chance that marijuana will be legal in two years.

And if Massachusetts does legalize marijuana, it would be best to get it right on the first try, before inertia and monied interests settle in — if drug dealers seem difficult now, just wait until they have lobbyists. How states legalize marijuana matters: Voters in Ohio just rejected a misguided marijuana legalization effort there, partly because it was seen as creating a monopoly. The example of alcohol should also be a cautionary one. After Prohibition, Massachusetts and many other states erected a needless thicket of anticompetitive laws that have hurt consumers, enriched middlemen, and done little to mitigate alcoholism.


Put another way, if Massachusetts is to legalize marijuana, it would be best to do what it didn’t do after Prohibition: Rip off the Band-Aid once and for all. That is what the Bay State Repeal proposal would offer, and if marijuana is on the ballot next year, that’s a choice that Massachusetts voters should get.


The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol promotes itself as the more responsible route to legalization, modeled on successful initiatives in Oregon and Colorado. But in fact the two proposals are very similar when it comes to key health and public safety concerns. Both would leave bans in place for those under 21. Both would require growers to keep marijuana plants out of sight, and, in most cases, under lock and key. Both would tax marijuana sales, albeit at slightly different rates. Both would allow landlords who have safety concerns to forbid their tenants from growing marijuana. Bay State Repeal is even stricter in some respects — for instance, by applying the “social host” law to marijuana.

The big differences between the two stem mostly from their regulatory approach, and in that regard they are striking. In Bay State Repeal’s plan, marijuana would be regulated by existing agencies like the Department of Agriculture, and subject to testing and labeling requirements, much like other legal products. There would be no government-imposed caps on the number of growers. As its backers see it, they want to give farmers in Massachusetts the option to grow marijuana, as they can now grow the ingredients of cigarettes (tobacco) or beer (hops) if they choose.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would create a far more tightly controlled market, including a whole new regulatory bureaucracy within the treasurer’s office called the Cannabis Control Commission. It would charge fees up to $15,000 for licenses to grow marijuana for commercial purposes, or to sell it at retail. The commission would also have the power to limit the overall amount of marijuana grown in Massachusetts.

The plan copies some of the most stifling aspects of alcohol regulation while omitting some of the beneficial ones. For instance, despite its name, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would place a limit on the amount of marijuana a person could have on their person or in their home. But there’s no limit on how much beer you can store in your fridge. If marijuana is going to be legal, why impose an arbitrary cap on possession?


Indeed, few of the regulatory provisions would help the marijuana industry’s prospective consumers — which should be the purpose of any regulation of legal products. They would, instead, erect needless barriers to entry and, if the commission enacted a limit, work to keep competition out and prices up.

Worst of all, the campaign’s language also gives the state’s existing medical marijuana facilities a head start in seeking out licenses, and time to lock down the market. That’s an anticompetitive provision that serves no public purpose (though it would help protect the investments of those firms; no wonder their trade association has backed it). Proponents offer the defense that the provision will ensure an adequate supply of marijuana — as if the way to grow the plant was a complicated secret that only existing companies could possibly understand.

While the two campaigns begin gathering signatures, there is a third option: The Legislature could pass a legalization plan of its own, preempting both ballot questions. That’s a possibility that should get serious consideration. Kevin Hill, an addiction expert at McLean Hospital, called on the Legislature earlier this year to do so. He feels that neither legalization campaign would tax marijuana sufficiently, or place stringent enough limits on advertising.

“When you have advocates creating the laws, you have flawed laws,” he said. “Lawmakers should make laws.” But while a handful of legislators raised that possibility earlier this year, there has been little momentum on Beacon Hill. Governor Charlie Baker, who opposes legalization, said voters should decide first, and then the Legislature can fix problems later.


Maybe. But the starting point of any such legislative revisions still matters, and that’s what the referendum vote could provide. Of the two proposals on the table, Bay State Repeal’s offers a better framework for legalization.