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
- 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.