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Mass. Ballot Initiative Deadline Reveals Split In Marijuana Legalization Community


Wednesday marked the final day for ballot initiatives to be filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. The submissions reveal a struggle over the best way to legalize recreational marijuana.The first hurdle for the citizen-driven measures is gathering 10 voter signatures and submitting them to the Attorney General. From there the AG will decide whether they pass constitutional muster. Among the groups filing is the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Its proposal would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and over, tax the sale of it and regulate it. A so-called Cannabis Commission, similar to the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, would be created to issue licenses for retail, growing and testing facilities. The group’s communications director Jim Borghesani says prohibiting marijuana has pushed the substance into a dangerous illicit market.

“We think it is a much better idea to take a substance that is less dangerous and harmful than alcohol by any objective measure and make it a regulated substance sold by licensed facilities that generate revenue and jobs for the commonwealth,” said Borghesani.

Under the initiative, marijuana would be subject to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax and a new excise tax of 3.75 percent. Local governments could set up an additional 2 percent tax. Medical marijuana would not be subject to these levies. Borghesani says the group intends to release economic impact estimates. The Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and its effort are backed by the national group Marijuana Policy Project.

“We like to call them the Marijuana Profiteering Project,” said Steven Epstein of Bay State Repeal.

His group is filing three initiatives that would also legalize marijuana. Epstein is critical of the limits set forth by the other proposal such as a cap of six plants in a person’s home and a one ounce possession limit. Bay State Repeal’s initiatives would not create another tax, but would require licenses to sell. Retail sales would be subject to the state’s sales tax and it would be a crime to give marijuana to people under 21.  

“We’re not focused on helping anybody who’s in the commercial business of selling marijuana or marijuana products to have an oligarchy for a number of years and then to have high regulatory hurdles to get through before you can get into the business, that’s profiteering,” said Epstein.

The Marijuana Policy Project was behind the successful push to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado and is involved in similar efforts across the country. Massachusetts voters approved two pro-marijuana ballot questions, de-criminalizing possession and allowing for medical marijuana dispensaries, in recent years. Speaking in June, State Senate President Stan Rosenberg of Amherst said the previous approvals suggest there’s a very good chance recreational marijuana will be legalized.

“The worry that I have is that it will be written in a way that doesn’t take into consideration the opinions of stakeholders who are not in favor of it,” Rosenberg said. “If they were at the table we end up with a better product because they’ll raise legitimate questions, it’ll force the conversation to head in the direction of coming up with better solutions and so you’d end up with a better law.”

Another initiative would create a tax of 4 percent on personal income above $1 million on top of the 5.15 percent income tax rate. The state’s fiscal 2016 budget approved reducing that rate to 5.1 percent in 2016. The initiative’s backers are Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition of unions and community groups that successfully pushed for earned sick time last year. Spokesman Stephen Crawford says the money gathered would go to public education and the state’s transportation needs.

“Low and middle-class families are paying a much larger percentage of their income in state and federal taxes than the very wealthy are,” said Crawford.

Since the tax would amend the constitution, the initiative is not expected to reach the ballot until 2018 if it clears a number of hurdles. Other initiatives filed include an effort to repeal Common Core education standards, paid parental leave and an attempt to strengthen Massachusetts’ public records law. The Attorney General typically determines whether measures are constitutional by early September. From there, backers would need to gather thousands of signatures in hopes of prompting legislative or voter action in 2016.

Click here to view the submitted petitions.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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