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Pot shops In Someone Else’s Backyard? Not quite

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker. AP

To judge by election results, Massachusetts voters want marijuana — but not pot shops in their town.

They want affordable housing for the poor — but heaven help a developer who tries to build it on their street.

They want casino gambling and the revenue it produces for the state — as long as it’s in Everett or Springfield or someplace else no suburbanite would ever visit.

They want it In Someone Else’s Back Yard.

The result of that kind of hypocrisy is to deepen regional inequalities and force certain communities, usually the poorer ones, to shoulder the burdens associated with casinos, pot, affordable housing.


Now, as part of legislation revising the new pot law that Governor Charlie Baker signed on Friday, the Legislature has struck an important blow against ISEBYism. For what is believed to be the first time in Massachusetts, lawmakers used local referendum results to guide state law.

Under the compromise, towns that voted for marijuana legalization in 2016 are going to have to live with that decision, and won’t get the expedited escape route that local officials have been pushing for. Municipalities that voted against the law, though, will gain a simpler pathway to banning retail establishments in their town.

Whether the compromise will work as intended is a fair question. Even under the existing rules, a few towns that voted for legalization went on to vote against allowing sales in their towns. Local officials could also defy assumptions and turn out to be more open to marijuana (and its associated tax revenues) than electorates. There are also some legitimate questions about whether the compromise will withstand legal challenges.

The compromise’s intent, though, should be applauded.

In theory, statewide initiatives can’t apply only to particular municipalities. But in practice, crafty lawyers can write referendum language that clearly applies only to certain places, such as last year’s vote to authorize a second Massachusetts slots parlor. It almost certainly would have been located in Revere, but was allowed onto the statewide ballot anyway. In other cases, such as the original casino legislation, which was upheld by voters in 2014, the law gives communities an ability to opt out.


Together, laws that primarily affect only certain communities contribute to patterns of inequality. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when suburban towns can vote for affordable housing requirements, but then sabotage them within their own borders, they end up with fewer low-income people. Voters, or their legislators, know they can pass mandates that they’ll never have to live with themselves.

The compromise pot law at least tries to address that dynamic. And if its impact is to make voters worry that the consequences of the next referendum might end up in their own backyard — well, would that be
so bad?