Yesterday’s Marijuana Vote

As a public supporter of marijuana legalization, I look forward to supporting the full implementation of the people’s will. However, I was not troubled by the decision yesterday to postpone the commercial sale of marijuana by six months. The real battles to protect the people’s will lie ahead.

In November, the people voted to legalize the possession of marijuana, home cultivation of marijuana and non-commercial sharing of marijuana, all in limited quantities. That vote became effective on December 15 and nothing that the legislature has done diminishes those new liberties.

The people also voted to authorize the commercial sale of marijuana in licensed establishments.   The people’s vote requires the state and municipalities to jointly regulate the time, place and manner of sale of marijuana — as current law allows the joint regulation of commercial alcohol sale.  Yesterday the legislature voted to slow the roll-out of commercial sale by six months.

The people’s vote requires the state treasurer to promulgate regulations regarding marijuana sales including:

  • Procedures and qualifications for licensing
  • Security
  • Prevention of sales to minors
  • Health and safety standards, including labeling and quality testing procedures
  • Cultivation/processing and distribution

All of these regulations will be subject to public hearing and comment and will, no doubt, generate controversy.  Treasurer Goldberg, who under the people’s vote will be the primary state regulator of marijuana, needs funding to pay people to run the regulator process, but the people’s vote does not actually create any immediate funding source.  While I am disappointed by the vote yesterday to delay the roll-out by six months, I accept it as a reasonable accommodation to reality in the circumstances.

Some have complained about the taking of the delay vote in an informal session (see note below on informal sessions) — lightly attended  with no formal roll call.  I was not troubled by that.  The Senate leadership team consulted with Senators who had supported the referendum, including me, before moving the vote forward.  I expressed that as long as we did not delay the basic legalization, including the permission for home grow, I did not object to modest delay in the roll-out of commercial regulation.

The real debate lies ahead of us and we need to pick our battles.  Many legislators have expressed interest in increasing the taxation of marijuana sales.  The people’s vote sets a tax rate of 3.75% on marijuana sales and gives municipalities the option to add another 2%.  No one knows just how much revenue the new taxes will generate, but there will undoubtedly be votes ahead to dramatically raise the rates to levels where the taxes are more likely to materially ease our state and local budget difficulties.  While I am acutely aware of our financial needs in many areas, I firmly oppose increasing taxation of marijuana.

My motivation in supporting marijuana legalization is to reduce the number of ways that people can get in trouble with the criminal justice system.  To be successful in that respect, the new commercial market needs to fully supplant the illegal distribution network for marijuana.  If we set taxes too high, under-the-table sales will continue and we will defeat the purpose of legalization.   I also feel that any unreasonable regulations on time, place or manner will contribute to continued illegal distribution.

Over the months to come, I will be a strong advocate for protecting the liberties created by the people’s November vote.

Note re informal sessions

“Informal sessions” are a routine part of the legislative process in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The Massachusetts Constitution requires that the legislature meet twice a week year round. Many of those meetings are “informal” in the sense that few members are present and no roll call votes are taken.  No actions are taken at all unless a member of the minority party is present.  All actions can be taken only by a voice vote with unanimous consent.  On each occasion that the Senate adjourns, the order of adjournment states whether the next session will be formal or informal so that members can plan.

Typically, only routine, non-controversial business is done in informal sessions — legislation like bridge namings, rule changes for particular municipalities, sick leave banks, etc.  However, during the long period between the end of the biennial session in July of even numbered years and the reconvening of the legislature in January, it is not uncommon for more significant bills to need attention. In those cases, the burden is on the leadership to make sure that members who might have concerns are properly informed and can choose to come in and object.

Informal sessions are publicly noticed and open to the public. Reporters are typically present.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

90 replies on “Yesterday’s Marijuana Vote”

  1. like a former local elected official in my community commented regarding an election cycle, ‘I am watching this very carefully’ I agree with your comments and trust guidelines shall be established for the use of this plant

  2. Congratulations Senator, a sound responsible position for you to adopt, regardless of one’s views on the legalization vote in November.

  3. “My motivation in supporting marijuana legalization is to … fully supplant the illegal distribution network for marijuana.”

    Bravo for these comments, but delaying the opening of production and retail facilities not only perpetuates the black market by delaying the diversion of its customers to the legal market, it also delays new state revenues as we face massive federal healthcare cuts when Putin-Trump-Ryan repeal the ACA.

    We know under marijuana reform that state levels of opioid overdose deaths, motor vehicle deaths, and adolescent use and access have dropped in MA and the other reform states — and that our MMJ commerce has encountered no public health or safety problems — so why tolerate the closure of hospitals in poor communities across the state (when ACA funding stops), to study the impact of legalization on public health and safety while delaying state revenues from nonmedical cannabis commerce?

    1. If you are urging that we raise taxes enough to cover our increased health care costs, I’m not with you. There’s no reason to believe that what the people voted will do that.

      Also, no one is making legalization subject to a new study. Rather, the study in the bill is designed to get a baseline so that we can see how legalization works out.

  4. Right on Senator.

    Punitive taxes will ensure that the black-market lives on.
    Colorado learned this lesson, and have DECREASED initial punitive measures.
    Let’s think, as you are.
    Thank you, I support your position.
    However, I also believe that a year is plenty of time to set it up.
    Oh, well.

  5. I do think that there is room to raise the tax on marijuana substantively and still have legal marijuana undercut the cost of illegally distributed marijuana — and it will be both a good source of revenue and a precedent for those leaders (the governor and speaker) who are afraid or unwilling to raise taxes even when that needs of the Commonwealth demand revenue increases.

    1. I really don’t think anyone actually knows what level of taxation will impact illegal distribution. Given the uncertainty and given the importance of reducing illegal distribution, I wouldn’t take a chance on increased taxation.

      1. Given the enthusiasm of commercial entities to get into the business, we can be sure they have worked the numbers and know here they can set their price levels to compete successfully with illegal distributors. Increased taxes will only reduce their profit margins, which we can assume are quite high.

      2. We could certainly start with a low level of taxation, which hopefully would result in a legal price substantially lower than an illegal price (although imported pot might benefit from lower labor costs). An initial legal low cost for a few years might disrupt the illegal distribution, and taxes could be raised later as the issue is better understood. I do hope that the corporate interests can be kept small and that corporate speech (advertising) can be limited as much as possible. The worst outcome is to have large multinational corporations promote consumption in order to maximize their profits. The less advertising the better, but personal free speech must be respected.

  6. “Over the months to come, I will be a strong advocate for protecting the liberties created by the people’s November vote.”

    It’s disappointing that the legislature could rush to get this vote in, but wasn’t willing to do anything about AG Healey’s actions back in July. Disappointing, but not surprising.

  7. Sir,

    Not troubled that the vote was with 3 or 4 legislators? Really?

    You should be!

    If the legislature took this up in a mindful way, we would not have needed a ballot question.

    This is why folks have lost confidence in our elected representatives.

    1. This is just timeline. The legislature will take the whole issue up in a mindful way and that is when the real issues will be joined. Quarreling over a few months on the timeline would not strengthen us in the debates ahead.

  8. Yes, taxes are critical. The costs of legalization have been reported as substantially above the tax authorized by the referendum.

    But, what are the estimates of savings: policing, courts, jail, lost tax revenue of those who might have worked, etc., and not to mention the savings of families and communities?

    Let’s not lose sight of the reason we prefer legalization. The war did not work—devastating lives, families, communities. Don’t let “better management” be a tool of destruction, rather manage for creation.

  9. Marijuana legalization is one more indication of liberal insanity. The long term medical effect of the use of this drug is not known at this time. It could prove highly dangerous. It is extremely irresponsible for our leaders to encourage the use of this potentially dangerous product. I believe this drug is being promoted primarily for financial reasons, benefitting politicians, rather than for social improvement. We will doubtless regret this decision in the long run.

    1. Yes, there certainly are financial incentives for companies who sell pot, pot products and paraphernalia. That said, alcohol was known for centuries to have all sorts of bad consequences. This country didn’t get around to prohibiting it until the 1920s, and we all know how well that worked.

      Medical effects of cannabis are pretty well known. There aren’t very many and they don’t strike very often, unlike alcohol and most pharmaceutical and recreational drugs. I for one don’t worry about people shortening their lives from smoking Mary Jane.

      What worries me is not that more people will smoke dope but the underlying dynamics that result in drug addiction. The opioid epidemic represents people who were already feeling pain and got high. I want to know what generated that pain, and have a sneaking suspicion that much of it came from poverty, hopelessness, and feeling unwanted, unneeded, or irrelevant by the economy, by society, and by schools and employers.

      Until root causes of why people become drug addicts are broadly confronted, people will continue to use drugs to escape, and we damn well ought not to make them criminals for it.

  10. I hope for a permanent postponement. Smoking marijuana is more harmful than cigarettes. It will cause more injuries, deaths, and education decline. Have we no shame or principles?

  11. I think it was outrageous that a procedural vote by a handful of legislators delayed the implementation of a democratically decided action. Such a decision should have been made in a regular legislative session with a Roll Call record of the vote.

    I would like the House & Senate in full session to repeal what was just passed before considering in regular session any changes to the timetable implementing the voters will.

    Lastly, I’m skeptical that there is not enough time to implement a January 2018 deadline for legalizing marijuana sales in Mass. Colorado did it so why not Mass.? I view this as foot-dragging by opponents to legalization who would rather not see legalization at all. Hold the feet of the foot draggers to the fire or have people willing to implement the people’s will in a timely fashion!

  12. I am totally against the way it was done….in secret ,with only a few people present in both houses. It seems a referendum counts only if the legislature is in favor of it.
    Remember when we voted to roll back the Mass income tax.? The legislature decided not to do it.
    …….They had enough time to work out the details. A unique idea for the future….when a referendum is rolled out start planning for its enactment. The legislature should try being proactive.

  13. Regulation will be critical to mitigate the potential negative effects of legalization – especially the public health effects – and especially the effects on children. If it takes time to establish smart and enforceable regulations, so be it. Now is the only time. Once the marijuana industry is in operation, we all know they will have the power and the PR points to prevent or water down any new regs we don’t establish now.

    The “will of the people” has been expressed, but the people don’t all think of the downside of these things. Responsible legislators need to.

  14. The action yesterday was an abomination done by a very very few legislators behind closed doors with no public oversight. Whether or not they are right, the methodology STINKS to high heaven and can not be condoned or tolerated in any way.

  15. We have medical marijuana up and running. Why do we need different rules and a separate group of people to run recreational marijuana? Why not put the whole thing under one group? Are people who use it for medicinal purposes going to spend money for a prescription or will they go to a recreational store?

  16. I’m definitely not a fan of the postponement. It reminds me of the state’s foot dragging on casinos. It should not be difficult to set the guidelines and regulations for the sale of marijuana. We are not the first to do this and can learn a lot from those who came before us. It is the legislature’s job to do this in a timely manner.

  17. I support your position on this matter. Thank you for clarifying the matter further.

    There are a lot of lessons learned from Colorado, that can benefit the senators who asked for the 6-month delay and others who would like to seek for more facts on the benefits for patients. Abuse by some is likely to happen similar to smoking and drinking. Let us not prevent those who for health reasons at least benefit from taking the medically-recommended marijuana by doctors.

  18. You may not talk in public as much as other politicians but this form of communication is great. That is a good thing.

  19. Well reasoned, Will. Happy, healthy new year with peace of mind and peace of heart for you and your entire family. Sallye

  20. Dear Senator,
    Thank you for the info on the recent decision by the Legislature to delay licensing commercial marijuana retailers. It helps give a context for the decision, and I understand that addressing funding and a regulatory framework will take some time, though I hope MA will take a good look at what has worked (and not worked) in other states, instead of reinventing the wheel. I very much appreciate your stance on this issue and your concerns about people going to jail for using marijuana. That said, it concerns me that people who do not grow it themselves or have extremely generous “friends” that will “share,” will have to find somewhere to buy it for an even longer period. This puts everyone involved at risk.

    The latest decision to delay the licensing process also troubles me from the my current experience trying to navigate the Byzantine process of getting myself registered in MA for the use of medical marijuana. I have to fax a form to my over-worked PCP, have her fax the completed form to what is called a “marijuana doctor,” who charges for a separate appointment to discuss my needs, fill out another form that has to be accompanied with various support documents, send them to the registration office, then wait to hear if I’m approved. Assuming I am, I have to start the process all over again in a year or less. I’m a 69 year old woman with health issues, not someone trying to game the system to stay stoned the rest of my life.
    The delays on licensing the commercial marijuana establishments and dispensaries plus what I’m going through trying to navigate the patient registration process gives the impression that the powers that be do not approve of the use of medical OR recreational marijuana, so they’re going to make implementation as difficult as possible.

    1. Barb, I am very sorry for all your troubles. Thanks for explaining the medical cannabis acquisition process. Won’t this look silly later next year! How can this byzantine process persist when one can buy cannabis without a prescription? And what will become of the dispensaries? The medical marijuana law must be overhauled if doctors want to stay in the loop. They should, of course, but as advisors and monitors, not middlemen.

  21. Thank you for explaining your positions on marijuana, Will. Very well though through, especially the ultimate tax rate issue.

  22. I am glad thoughtful minds are working to make this vote responsible and successful. As someone who was against the vote, I am happy that the will of the people as well as the entire public and regulatory context are being considered. Happy New Year!

  23. Please pressure your colleagues to reconsider their vote and insist on a speedy implementation of the people’s will to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana.
    Thank-you,
    Douglas Stevens
    Belmont, MA

  24. The excise tax in Colorado is 29 percent, while Washington’s rate is 37 percent. The other two states where recreational marijuana is legal, Oregon and Alaska, have a 25 percent rate. With the max surcharge the tax will only be 12% which is less than half of the next lowest rate paid in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana. I understand people wanting to legalize but it is way undertaxed i would rather see this tax increased with funds allocated to fund education and responsible usage. Have you seen any studies where the higher taxes driving usage to the black market? I’m in CO on vacation right now and stores are thriving despite the taxes.

    This will continue to add to the homeless issue. I would like to see higher taxes used to fund rebuilding the long island bridge. Despite Mayor Walsh’s claims that every bed has been replaced downtown the homeless problem is worse than ever and the legislature passing on higher taxes reeks of a payoff. Maybe the Boston Globe should investigate donations from the pot industry to elected officials.

  25. Will,
    I think the vote to delay was a good one.
    I do not think that this law will supplant the criminal.
    You lawmakers are already addressing the criminal justice system.
    I might worry about the people’s vote in the promoters of this law had not written it.
    I would raise the taxes as high as possible.
    This is nothing new as we have spoken about this
    I respect you, but disagree .
    John

  26. I voted no on Question 4 as the medical marijuana regulations were crafted in a very haphazard fashion. No property owner should forced to tolerate the headaches of nuisance marijuana smoking and growing unless they chose to. It is still federally illegal in any amount. I must make federal accommodations for smoke free housing as 3 out of 4 of my units have an occupant with asthma. Marijuana smoking and growing is highly problematic in multi-family housing. We should not be in between state and federal laws with no way to be right. I am glad that we can chose with recreational smoking and growing, but property owners should be able to chose whether to allow ANY marijuana smoking and growing.

  27. Thank you for the explanation. I’m not particularly troubled by the delay, as long as this delay isn’t extended again in the future. The troubled implementation of medical marijuana doesn’t give me confidence, but I’m hoping that lessons from that process have been learned.

    What does bother me is that this was done in informal session. While it may be true that no one in the legislature objected to the delay, it nonetheless seems like a singularly “untransparent” way to make a significant change to a law passed by the voters. Seems to me that taking a vote on this (even if it were a unanimous vote) would have been a better course to take.

  28. One of the legalization problems that I see relates to the final pricing of 1 ounce of marijuana. Most of the states that I checked with, were selling it at prices ranging very close to the current illegal price, which still makes it attractive for the illegal market. What’s going to be done to keep the pricing of legal MJ priced much, much, lower than illegal MJ,so that purchases will be hugely greater with the legal MJ., which, is one of the main purposes of legalizing it. Otherwise, if the legal MJ is too close in price to the illegal MJ, then not a lot will change in terms of eliminating the attraction of illegal MJ.

    1. Absolutely, the price should be lower to beggar the illegal market.

      Further, there are savings of enforcement, courts, lawyers, jail, not to mention taxes for working, family and community benefits, all savings to apply to the “cost” of regulation. Why would regulating Cannibus cost so much and alcohol so little, comparatively?

        1. The costs of regulating liquor are spread, ok.

          One question is: How do regulatory costs of liquor relate to the taxes and fees on liquor?

          The other question is: to “materially eliminate” the illegal market for Cannibus, are we not willing to reduce the tax?

          Put another way, a high tax on legal Cannibus is equivalent to taxing the export of domestic goods, but not the imports. Why would we do that?

  29. A majority of voters supported the complete law including legalization and regulation of Canibus.

    How is it that we so passively accept the vote of a minority of legislators changing the Law that we the people placed into effect?

    What else can be changed in the dark of the legislative chambers by a minority of legislators?

  30. Thank you for this clarification of the Senate’s actions and their meaning in light of the vote. I was beginning to wonder if we were moving toward the North Carolina model of politics!

  31. Thank you for opposing increases in taxes on marijuana. We should not be relying so much on sales taxes to fund our government. These are regressive taxes. Marijuana should be treated no differently than alcohol with respect to taxation. Tax carbon pollution instead!

  32. A year is more than enough time to get the work done that is needed, very disappointed in the lack of effort to do this in a timely manner…

    1. I agree except since the ballot question was written by industry FOR industry, it is entirely appropriate for the legislature to make it work better. Six months, in the grand scheme of things, is not a big deal. I would also support increasing the tax at least enough to cover administrative expenses. The Gaming Commission has a number of ongoing responsibilities which are valuable, but the Commission has its own funding source. I suggest you look at what those responsibilities are, assess whether comparable ongoing activities would be desirable for marijuana, and THEN decide what the tax ought to be.

  33. VERY MUCH APPRECIATE YOUR UPDATE ON THIS.

    HOWEVER, THE PEOPLE ALSO VOTED TO BEGIN COMMERCIAL SALE AT THE START OF 2018. WHETHER ONE SUPPORTED OR OPPOSED THE LEGALIZATION, POSTPONEMENT LEAVES MOST OF THOSE WHO WISH TO USE MARIJUANA FENDING FOR THEMSELVES IN OBTAINING IT FROM UNREGULATED, (MAYBE UNSAFE & UNHEALTHY) SOURCES. MAKING THE YEAR=-LONG GREY AREA OF “LEGAL TO HAVE BUT NOT TO OBTAIN” ANOTHER 50% LONGER THAN THE PEOPLE DECIDED IS DISTASTFUL.

    1. I agree that sooner is better. But I think taking the time work out the kinks is also right. Substance regulation is complicated — alcohol regulation takes a lot of state and municipal time and that framework is relatively stable, having been in place for decades.

  34. I especially like this: “My motivation in supporting marijuana legalization is to reduce the number of ways that people can get in trouble with the criminal justice system. “

  35. Sen brownsberger,
    I respect and Agee with your position on the marijuana referendum. But I am very disappointed by this delay. It is typical of the Massachusetts government instinct for regulation to be unable to get anything done. Look how few medical marijuana facilities are available years after they were approved by the people.
    It is hard to resist the suspicion that legislators hope delay will provide more time for eager marijuana dealers to make political contributions. Regulating marijuana should be no more difficult than regulating cigarettes.

    1. Agreed. There should be a rider in the law that prohibits any donations from any pot dealer to an elected official and any donation directly or indirectly would be a grounds for revoking their license

      1. Umm, maybe, but why just pot? Are any other business owners prohibited from making political contributions, even state contractors? Perhaps, but not any I know of. How likely would such a provision be to stand?

        1. Bribery is a crime. That is already prohibited.

          I am not sure I would support additional limits on campaign contributions though. Campaign funds do not directly enrich the candidate. The candidate can only use them for particular lawful purposes. (There can be some indirect personal enrichment if the candidate uses campaign funds expansively, but that kind of abuse is limited by regulators and by public review of required spending disclosures.)

          Under current constitutional law, Citizens United, outside groups can spend as much money as they want to influence elections. Preventing people with interests from donating to legislators only means that the money flows through private groups that are less accountable than the legislators.

          Also, it is very hard to draw lines. Should people who run renewable energy firms be prevented from supporting environmentally motivated candidates?

          We have to put our faith in the disclosure process. There is a wealth of information available to the public about how legislators raise and spend money at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

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