Pubdate: Wed, 18 Jan 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Joshua Miller


Will lawmakers gut key parts of marijuana law?

A marijuana joint was rolled.

Marijuana legalization advocates fear the Massachusetts Legislature, which
has already delayed the opening of pot shops, will now gut several key
parts of the law approved by 1.8 million voters in November.

Public comments from Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg about potential
changes are setting off alarm bells among backers.

Rosenberg has raised the prospect of lawmakers sharply increasing the
marijuana tax rate, lowering the 12-plant-per-household limit on
homegrowing pot, and even raising the legal age for purchase, possession,
and use up from 21.

Rosenberg supported legalization and said he will respect the will of the
voters, but believes the law needs refinement. He has not taken firm
positions on those specific changes. In public forums, however, he has
said they are likely to be part of the debate over fine-tuning the law.

But even the specter of legislators meddling is giving advocates agita.

The move comes as activists fear Jeff Sessions could set back efforts
nationwide to legalize marijuana and could cripple D.C.'s local laws.

"The idea that legislators in my state could eviscerate a popular ballot
question, as I watch a minority of conservative voters overrule the
majority of national voters, I'll be damned if I'm going to sit still,"
said Michael Cutler, a Northampton lawyer who helped write the initiative.

The prospect of changes to the tax rate, homegrow limit, and legal age
"sound to me like fear and stigma and ignorance, unless the legislators
promoting changes have some evidence - which I haven't heard them identify
yet," he said.

Cutler pointed out that the majority of cities and towns voted for
legalization (overall, the vote was 54 percent to 46 percent ), and that
legislators would have their voters to answer to for any changes.

"People like Senate President Rosenberg, whose hometown voted for this
ballot question at a 75 percent rate, need to talk to their constituents,"
Cutler said of the Amherst Democrat.

Jim Borghesani, a leader of the initiative, who currently represents the
national Marijuana Policy Project in Massachusetts, decried "the headlong
rush by legislators to alter Question 4 without any expert guidance,
without any solid data, and without any acknowledgment that the system is
designed to be regulated, not legislated." He called that prospect
"extremely troubling."

Dick Evans, a key legalization advocate in the state for almost 40 years,
said the changes the Legislature is "talking about making to the law
constitute a solution in search of a problem."

The Legislature may take up other changes as well: restrictions on
pot-infused edibles like candy and cookies; a legal standard for driving
under the influence (there's currently no marijuana impairment standard in
the law comparable to the 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration cut-off
for alcohol); efforts to give cities and towns more control over pot
shops; and creating public health and education campaigns to enlighten
residents about the newly legal drug.

Despite advocates' dismay at his public comments, Rosenberg has been the
highest-ranking politician to support legalization. He's met with
advocates and people in the marijuana business world multiple times.

"When I met with the advocates in my office," he said in a statement to
the Globe, "I assured them that the Legislature will respect the will of
the voters who legalized recreational marijuana on Nov. 8."

In the statement, Rosenberg said that lawmakers will engage people with a
stake in the industry in a "robust, inclusive, and deliberative process"
to address issues that have come up in other legalization states.

For example, in a recent radio interview on WCAP Rosenberg said, "It's
legal now to have 12 plants in your home, but the advocates understand
that this is likely to be debated in the process,"

There are coherent reasons why legislators might want to make changes
advocates fear.

* A 12-plant-per-household homegrow limit is risky, officials in other
legalization states say, because it could create a gray market in which
people grow plants legally, then illegally sell the pot - which won't be
tested, taxed, or overseen by state authorities. If the growers know what
they are doing, 12 plants could provide much more marijuana than a
standard household would be able to consume.

* The Massachusetts law sets a tax rate for retail sales, 3.75 percent,
much lower than other legalization states - Washington State imposes a 37
percent tax on pot, for example. That, legalization opponents fear, won't
be enough to pay for the oversight needed for the new industry, nor to
support related services like addiction counseling. (Cities and towns can
add another 2 percent local pot tax, and marijuana will also be subject to
the state's 6.25 percent sales tax.)

* Raising the legal age, while unlikely, is supported by some scientific
data. Rosenberg said this month he feels obligated to put the idea on the
table. That's because "smoking marijuana, especially in substantial
quantities for people under the age of 25, has a potentially bad effect on
the development and formation of the brain because . . . it's not fully
developed, until about age 25." (Dr. Sharon Levy, an expert in adolescent
substance abuse at Boston Children's Hospital, said Rosenberg is
essentially correct. "Until that last stage of development is complete,
the brain is more configured in a way that's set for learning than real
proficiency," she said. "Marijuana use can interrupt some of that growth
and development.")

But advocates say the law Massachusetts voters backed was carefully
written with public health and safety in mind. They say lawmakers ought to
refrain from making any changes until the state's new pot regulatory body,
the Cannabis Control Commission, has a chance to write regulations.

Further, they argue, the tax rate is sufficient for the administration of
a regulatory system, and a higher rate would invite a continuation of the
black market because consumers would go looking for cheaper pot. They say
the homegrow limits won't have the negative effects opponents fear. And
they note that the legal age matches that of alcohol, and a higher one
would invite continued black market activity.

Finally, they say it's undemocratic to unwind key parts of a law so many
people voted for.

In December, with just a few legislators present, the Senate and House
passed a bill delaying the likely opening date of retail marijuana shops
from January to July 2018. Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who
campaigned against legalization, signed that legislation into law.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat and legalization opponent, and
Baker have both affirmed they will respect the will of the voters, but
said they are open to making changes to the law.

Rosenberg and DeLeo are forming a joint Senate-House committee on
marijuana. That group is poised to hold hearings and conduct research
before coming up with new laws relating to marijuana legalization.
- ---
MAP posted-by: