The Upcoming Marijuana Votes (169 Responses)

I think the ballot question needs little modification — but I would welcome your thoughts before voting.

I supported Question 4, legalizing marijuana, because I feel there are too many ways for young people to get caught up in the criminal justice system. Dealing in illicit substances is all too attractive for young people who have limited opportunities. We need to take away the incentives to go into illicit marijuana dealing by creating a fully functioning legal market.

Fortunately, there is no movement to eliminate any of the basic freedoms created by the people’s vote last November.

Yet, there are two kinds of troubling proposals under discussion in the legislature.

First, increased taxation: The people voted to tax retail marijuana sales at 3.75% on top of the 6.25% sales tax. In addition, the people voted to allow a 2% local tax on top of that for a total of 12%. There are various proposals to increase those tax rates — motivated either by the opportunity to fund state priorities or by the notion that higher taxes would reduce consumption of an unhealthy product (think, for example, of our high tobacco taxes or of proposals to tax sodas).

I have no interest in these tax proposals — the higher we raise the taxes, the more persistent the black market will be. Moreover, in 2018, we will be asking the people to consider a tax increase on those making over $1 million per year, a proposal that would raise 10 or 20 fold more than the marijuana tax will raise. I do not feel that we should be nickel-and-diming voters, especially where they have already spoken as to the tax level they feel is appropriate for marijuana.

Second, elimination of the voters’ voice. The people’s vote last November allows communities to ban marijuana establishments by a local referendum. Several dozen communities have already gone through this process. Some local officials are lobbying for the ability to shut out marijuana establishments by a vote of the city or town’s governing body, instead of popular referendum. I personally feel that movement in this direction would send exactly the wrong message — the message that government officials know better than the people and should not have to consult them on this matter of community preference. Additionally, I am concerned that reducing the number of licit outlets will sustain the illicit market.

The ballot question vested regulatory authority in a commission appointed and controlled by the state treasurer, analogous to our Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. Some have suggested that we should split the appointing authority among the other statewide constitutional officers, as we have for the Gaming Commission. I have no objection to this, but do not find it compelling.

On a positive note, some are pushing for the addition of language to expunge the records of people who were convicted of marijuana crimes under the old law. I share the motivations of these advocates, but I think expungement is a side show in this context. Very few people will benefit from any feasible expungement process. Even under existing law, first-time marijuana possession offenders automatically get their records sealed.

Overall, while I see the potential for some technical corrections to the ballot question, I am at a loss to see why we’d want to make any major changes. People are watching government closely these days and there is a crisis of confidence. The last thing we should be doing is pushing back on the will of the people in the absence of very compelling reasons to do so.

I’d very much welcome your thoughts.

Update on June 21

Senator Jehlen has released to the Senate for review a good bill which is respectful of the will of the voters and responsive to the concerns I outlined above. She has also produced a summary and a comparison of the pending bills with the ballot question. The latter document includes some useful answers to frequently asked questions.

The House is taking up its bill today and the Senate is taking up its bill tomorrow. Conferees will get down to work on negotiating between the branches soon after that. There are over 100 amendments pending to both bills, so the bills will change materially before going into the conference process.

Thoughts still welcome!

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    Will Brownsberger
    State Senator
    2d Suffolk and Middlesex District