THE PASSAGE OF the marijuana legalization referendum in November doesn’t mean that the new law’s exact language must stay frozen in amber forever. But the fact that the law was approved directly by the voters should mean that lawmakers consider changes with more caution than they showed on Wednesday, when both the House and Senate approved a six-month delay to some of the law’s provisions without hearings or a formal roll-call vote.
That decision, reached in informal session and sent to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature, doesn’t change the basic structure of the legalization law. But if approved by Baker, it would slightly delay the opening of marijuana retail stores in Massachusetts and the creation of a new commission to oversee the industry. Legislative leaders say the delay will help implement legalization effectively.
Whatever the merits of the decision, though, making changes to laws without voting isn’t how an accountable, representative government is supposed to function. Going forward, the Legislature should ensure that changes to the marijuana law follow normal legislative procedures.
Question 4, which passed by more than 7 percentage points, set up a complicated regulatory system that’s bound to require fine-tuning as the state creates a new bureaucracy. Indeed, lawmakers started discussing changes virtually the day after the election. But retail pot sales aren’t due to start until 2018, meaning there will be plenty of opportunities for lawmakers to amend the law through ordinary votes.
Might that create political headaches? Sure: Voting to change the law could leave rank-and-file lawmakers vulnerable to accusations they’re overturning the will of voters. But they are, after all, paid to legislate, and most voters can tell the difference between tweaking a law and gutting it. Either way, without voting records it’s harder for voters to hold individual lawmakers accountable. Using procedural loopholes to shield legislators from those votes would be an embarrassing way to govern Massachusetts.
Baker, who opposed marijuana legalization all along, said through a spokesman that he’s reviewing the six-month delay. Opinions on the marijuana law, and the many policy decisions that come with legalization, are bound to vary. But supporters and opponents should be able to agree that when the Legislature amends a voter initiative, those changes should be aired, debated, and voted on in the most transparent way possible.