Marijuana Policy Panel Holds Western Mass. Hearing

Mar 28, 2017

Members of the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy prepare to begin a public hearing in the auditorium at West Springfield High School.
Credit WAMC

    A legislative committee looking into possible changes to the voter-approved Massachusetts marijuana law heard appeals from law enforcement, public health advocates, local government officials, and legalization proponents at a hearing in western Massachusetts last night.

     Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said he is concerned with how public safety will be impacted when marijuana becomes more widely available in Massachusetts.

    " In particular law enforcement's ability to arrest and prosecute effectively folks who are using marijuana and driving and  potentially endangering our public," Gulluni said.

     Testifying before the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, Gulluni quoted statistics from Colorado that showed a 32 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths in 2014, the year retail sales of the drug began. 

     He told the committee that convictions for driving under the influence of marijuana are difficult to obtain because there is no test akin to a breathalyzer for alcohol to measure marijuana intoxication and no legal standard for how much of the drug has to be present in a person’s system to constitute impairment.

    The prosecutor did not cite for the committee any specific changes he would like to see in the law.

   " I am  hopeful with the lessons we've learned from the states that have legalized along with the work these legislators are going to do as well as the law enforcement community across Massachusetts that we will fare somewhat better than those other states," Gulluni said.

     Others among the dozens who testified at the more than 3-hour long hearing in the auditorium of West Springfield High School were more definite about steps they’d like taken to change the law, or to leave it alone.

    Dr.  Ruth Potee, an addiction specialist who is a member of the Opioid Task Force in Franklin County, urged strict limits on the potency of marijuana that can be legally sold, a ban on edible marijuana products, and raising the legal age for possession to 25.

   " That is something we should consider to protect young people from developing a lifetime of disease," said Potee.

    Joshua Mintzer of Easthampton said the legislature should take a hands-off approach.    

  " Right now a lot of what I am seeing is a lot of  people trying to put the cart before the horse," he said, urging the committee to " let the law work mostly as intended and then fix the problems as they come. I don't think it is that difficult."

   Alisa Brewer, a member of the board of selectmen in Amherst, said the language in the marijuana law is vague about where retail stores are permitted, and does not appear to give local officials the same control as they have over the sale of alcohol.

  " We are going to have to somehow magically craft the perfect zoning that puts ( a marijuana store) in the right place and then some state agency is going to decide if it is correct," said Brewer. " That concerns us a lot."

   There were also complaints from local officials that the proposed tax rates on retail marijuana sales won’t bring in enough money to cover expected regulatory and law enforcement costs. Westfield Mayor Brian Sullivan said a portion of the revenue should be directed to combat opioid use.

   " I think we have an opportunity to use the money in the correct ways for enforcement and for prevention," he said.

   Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, one of the few elected officials in the state who supported the marijuana legalization referendum last year, told the committee he sees economic opportunity in the burgeoning marijuana industry. He is anxious to advertise available space in the numerous empty mill buildings in his city for commercial cultivation operations and to manufacture edibles.

" Please don't hold up or delay the process any longer,"  Morse said. " A handful of legislators already delayed the implementation by six months never mind that 1.8 million Massachusetts voters voted in favor of Question 4."

  The law made marijuana possession in small amounts legal for adults as of last December 15th.  But retail sales won’t be allowed until July 2018 at the earliest.   Legislators have argued they need the time to “tweak” the law and set up a bureaucracy to write and enforce regulations.

  Even though the marijuana policy committee is early in its work, State Rep. Michael Finn said they are already zeroing in on some likely amendments.

  " I strongly think there will be some changes," Finn said in an interview predicting there would be changes involving local control, taxation, and other " technical" areas.

  Legislators say the goal is to get a final bill passed by July.