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. Great work Senator. These “citizen initiative petitions” are not what John Adams had in mind when he included that in our Constitution. In fact I don’t think any one of the 5 ballot questions we faced this past November were in fact “citizen initiatives:, but rather commercially design and run campaigns promoting a particular point-of-view.

  2. I TOTALLY AGREE WITH 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.

    WHY NOT tax it higher? Make the sales pay for the administration of the regulating of the substance?

    I object to the vote being taken on the sly. . .

  3. The article is froaught with problems as voted. Take the time to get it right or don’t do it at all.

  4. Dear will,
    I can live with the extension. Let’s get it right, including the tax rate. But several folks have criticized the way this vote happened. Even if you’re not troubled by the procedure, and maybe not right here, would you please offer a description of what an “informal session” of the legislature is? How, when and why do they happen, and who gets to invoke one? Constituents want to know if (or when) these conclaves are on the up-and-up.

  5. Thanks, Will. Your thoughtful explanations really help to see the big picture.
    Many interesting and worthwhile comments from others- it’s good to see several points of view.

  6. I always appreciate that you explain your stance on every vote and think more in the Legislature should follow suit. That said, I disagree here. Regardless of how big or small a bill is, the Legislature should not be passing things in sparsely attended sessions with no public notice and no public debate. That runs counter to any sound concept of democracy. Moreover, if the Legislature didn’t like the details of Question 4, it had the opportunity to pass its own bill or to put forth a substitute. It chose not to. And given how the majority of the Legislature was opposed to Question 4 (and I thank you for being one of the exceptions), I think this can open the door to more and more rollbacks aimed at neutering Question 4 entirely.

  7. Since you’re for deregulation how about relaxing the regulations on alcohol and getting rid of the 3 tier alcohol distribution system that is outdated and only serve to line the pockets of a few distributors and the elected officials they donate to. If people can have easy access to pot, I should be able to order wine directly from a winery without excess “handling” expenses

    1. Thanks, Derek, I totally agree that much of the legislation in this area is anti-consumer. I have been active on it. We have made some limited progress, but you are right that the distributors are very active as a lobbying group and I have not gotten very far.

  8. It may all be routine Will but voters should be told who voted to delay the implementation. Withholding or not providing the names of the lesgislators who voted for the delay just adds to the suspicion that something sneaky is going on. Disappointing we allow this kind of behavior.

    1. Who was in the room is a matter of record, but it is irrelevant. What happens in informal session is what the majority and minority leadership teams jointly want to happen, but anyone can object. So, in effect, we are all responsible for not having chosen to appear and object to stop it.

      I did not stop it, although I knew it was happening, because, in effect, I compromised — the possession and homegrow were protected. 6 months delay in the regulatory scheme that the regulators wanted does not seem unreasonable to me, even if it is disappointing.

  9. These sessions may be routine in general, but to override a mandate passed by statewide referendum? Enacting this delay so soon after our vote feels like the state dragging its feet. With the slow rollout of medicinal marijuana, and the general opposition by state leaders to recreational marijuana (I know you supported this past one), I frankly don’t have much trust that the state is making a good-faith effort to enact the policy we demanded of it.

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