Editorial: Details of legal pot still need to be fine tuned

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Massachusetts lawmakers at the end of last year decided they needed another six months before opening the doors wide to recreational marijuana.

While people behind the successful statewide referendum that legalized recreational pot decried the delay, the Legislature has a responsibility to act on behalf of the entire state and to strengthen the law.

Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, have been clear on this point — both during the campaign and since.

“Our goal has always been to make sure that the intent of the voters is carried out,” DeLeo said referring to the 54 percent of voters who approved the measure last November. “The delay will allow the committee process to work through the law’s complicated implications and provide a process by which we can strengthen, refine, and improve it.”

“The Legislature has a responsibility to implement the will of the voters while also protecting public health and public safety,” said Rosenberg, who despite reservations ultimately supported the ballot question. “This short delay will allow the necessary time for the Legislature to work with stakeholders on improving the new law.”

That view, however, isn’t shared by the people responsible for getting recreational marijuana on the ballot.

“We’re disappointed that a bill seeking to change a law passed by a solid margin of voters under the initiative petition process has been submitted in informal session with little notice to supporters,” Jim Borghesani, a leader of the legalization campaign, said in The Boston Globe. “Our message is unchanged: This new law was written with careful consideration to process and timelines and it requires no legislative revisions.”

Here’s what the six-month delay means:

In the short term, adults 21 and older can legally possess marijuana and smoke or otherwise consume it at home. They can grow their own, up to six plants per individual or 12 per household. Technically, the law allows people to buy it, although for now it remains illegal to sell marijuana for recreational use in Massachusetts. The opening of retail marijuana shops is pushed back until July 2018 because of the six-month delay.

The delay allows the state to address a segment of the retail market that particularly troubles the legislative leadership: edibles that are infused with the marijuana’s active ingredients. Lawmakers are concerned about the potency and marketing of edibles. They especially want to keep them out of children’s hands.

The six months will also presumably let lawmakers address the question of how to enforce laws against driving under the influence of marijuana. Many feel there needs to be a more reliable way for police to test for marijuana impairment.

The delay will also allow the state to determine whether the proposed tax on pot is high enough. As the law stands, Massachusetts will impose an excise tax of 3.75 percent (on top of the state 6.25 percent sales tax) with municipalities having a choice of adding an additional 2 percent. But some have argued that won’t be enough money to run the regulatory system envisioned by the referendum, let alone raise any revenue for the general fund or other related uses like anti-addiction programs.

The delay will give state Treasurer Deb Goldberg more time to put together the Cannabis Control Commission, the new regulatory body that will oversee pot sales much like the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission does for liquor.

Apparently, even the number of plants residents can legally grow might change. In a radio interview Tuesday, Rosenberg said lawmakers might consider cutting the number of plants in half to six per household, leading to recreational proponents again calling on the Legislature to respect the voters’ wishes.

But Rosenberg also struck a conciliatory note, saying that in revising the law “the stakeholders belong at the table, both people in favor and opposed.”

Shortcomings in the law as written should be addressed. While ending the prohibition of marijuana may in the long run be the right choice, Massachusetts lawmakers have a responsibility to do what’s best for all as we move forward with legal recreational marijuana as part of our lives.