By Colin A. Young
State House News Service
Now that Massachusetts voters have welcomed legal marijuana to the Bay State and voted to end cannabis prohibition on Dec. 15, attention is turning to implementation of the new law and whether neighboring states will follow Massachusetts' lead.
With 99 percent of the votes counted as of late Wednesday morning, the Associated Press reported Question 4 to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for adult use passed with support of 54 percent of voters.
Massachusetts joins Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska as states that have legalized cannabis. Voters in California and Nevada also legalized marijuana in their states on Nov. 8, a legalization initiative in Arizona failed and a the results of a legalization question in Maine were too close to call.
It will become legal for adults 21 or older to buy, possess, and use up to an ounce of marijuana, and grow up to six cannabis plants, on Dec. 15. Retail sales, though, are not expected to begin until at least 2018.
“The important task in front of us is implementing the will of the voters and creating safe, legal access to marijuana by adults,” Whitney Taylor, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “We must ensure that elected officials who opposed Question 4 do not use their influence to dismantle, hinder, or reject what the voters demanded on Election Day.”
Legislative leaders have indicated they plan to open up the new law and make changes to it, with particular attention on whether the effective 12-percent marijuana tax rate is high enough.
At 12 percent, Massachusetts would have the lowest marijuana tax rate of any state that has legalized the adult use of the drug. Colorado taxes marijuana at 29 percent, Washington 37 percent, Oregon 17 percent, and Alaska 25 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.
State lawmakers have avoided marijuana debates over the years, but it appears a debate is inevitable in 2017.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, one of the few elected officials who supported Question 4, said he is eager for “swiftly implementing (the voters') will, and working with Governor (Charlie) Baker and Speaker (Robert) DeLeo to create a best-in-the-nation law that protects public safety while respecting the wishes of the voters.”
Baker, who led the opposition to legalization, said his administration “will work closely with lawmakers, educators, and public safety and public health professionals to ensure this transition protects the interests of our communities and families.”
DeLeo's office said the Speaker will respect the will of the voters and will have “discussions with House members, Governor Baker, Senate President Rosenberg, and his colleagues in government regarding the next steps in the implementation of it.”
The ACLU said it will provide information on Question 4 and updates on implementation of the new law at www.aclum.org/question4.
Massachusetts employers are also looking at the new law to determine what it means for their workplaces.
In a blog post published Wednesday morning, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts said the new law will “actually have little to no direct impact on most employers,” but the powerful business group urged companies to review their drug-testing and drug-use policies.
“Review your drug/alcohol-free workplace policies to ensure that they cover all forms of drug use, including marijuana. You should also review your drug- and alcohol-testing polices to ensure they cover the topics you want,” AIM wrote. “You may want to revise your policy to ensure that it covers all aspects of your workplace, including vehicles used for business purposes, off-site duties at customer sites, work-related events, seminars, and company owned parking lots and garages.”
While marijuana backers, employers, the ACLU, and others watch how Massachusetts officials roll out the legal cannabis industry, the national legalization movement and other states are eyeing the victory in Massachusetts as a catalyst for federal reform or another wave of state-level legalization pushes.
Adam Fine, an attorney at the self-described “marijuana law firm” Vicente Sederberg, which helped draft the ballot law voters approved Tuesday, said legalization in Massachusetts represents a “huge step forward” for the national legalization movement.
Many other Northeast states have been watching the Bay State's legalization fight, he said, knowing that the result in Massachusetts could dictate how they proceed with the issue.
“I think the insiders, or people that have been working on drug policy reform or marijuana reform in Rhode Island, feel good that if Massachusetts moves forward, then Rhode Island is going to feel more comfortable moving forward,” Fine said.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo last month told The Providence Journal that the Ocean State will have to accelerate its own debate over legalization if Massachusetts voters OK adult use of pot. There are 20 Massachusetts towns that border Rhode Island.
As more states move in the direction of legalization and marijuana becomes less taboo, Fine said, it will become less risky for policymakers to work in favor of legalization.
“We have the majority on our side, if you look at national polls,” he said. “I think it will provide kind of cover for these other states to move forward with what we believe is the right approach and a practical, common-sense drug policy.”
People already working in the marijuana industry agree. Because none of the states that surround Massachusetts will want to miss out on marijuana tax revenue, they are expected to accelerate the march towards legalization.
“Every state in the Northeast has already enacted a successful, well-regulated medicinal cannabis law without any of the negative consequences some were fearing. Now each of the neighboring states will have the opportunity to evaluate if the same positive community impact comes from adult use,” Rob Hunt, president of the cannabinoid biosynthesis company Teewinot Life Sciences, said in a statement. “If they are satisfied with the result, adult use will swiftly spread throughout the region.”
Tom Angell, chairman of the national cannabis reform group Marijuana Majority, said legalization in Massachusetts “is just a sign of things to come.” ∞