BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – Voters on Tuesday approved a ballot question to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for adult use, making Massachusetts the first state on the East Coast to legalize marijuana.
Supporters claimed victory around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, as the Associated Press reported that a majority of voters had approved the law to allow people 21 or older to purchase, possess and use marijuana, with a one-ounce limit on purchases and possession. It also allows adults to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana, secured with a lock, in their home, and an adult could grow up to six cannabis plants at their residence.
The last day of the prohibition on adult marijuana use and possession will be Dec. 14.
“Today, a century-long mistake has been abolished … by the voters of Massachusetts. Today, voters chose facts over fear. Today, voter chose rational arguments over hysteria. And today, voters chose honesty over alarmist rhetoric,” Yes on 4 campaign spokesman Jim Borghesani said. “The voters of Massachusetts listened and today they decided to end what has been an abysmal failure in Massachusetts, and we are on a new path to a far superior system.”
The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts railed against legalization, warning of public health and public safety consequences of legal marijuana. Among the opposition’s arguments was that the law put before voters was written to give the industry — “Big Marijuana” — a foothold on the East Coast.
“Even if you believe in the concept of legalization, Question 4 is the absolute wrong path for our families and communities,” the campaign wrote Monday in its closing argument to voters. “Question 4 does not just legalize marijuana, it commercializes marijuana.”
“Our goal throughout this campaign was to make sure people knew what they were voting on – that Question 4 wasn’t just about legalization, but the commercialization of marijuana in Massachusetts,” campaign manager Nick Bayer said in a statement. “Voters chose to pass Question 4, we respect that vote, and now the work to implement this new law begins.”
Dr. James Gessner, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said physicians and his organization will work with the state to implement the law but will continue to warn of the dangers of marijuana.
“It is disappointing that the commercial interests of marijuana have won out over the health and safety of citizens in the Commonwealth,” Gessner said in a statement.
In a statement, Gov. Charlie Baker said he and his administration will “work closely with lawmakers, educators, and public safety and public health professionals to ensure this transition protects the interests of our communities and families.”
Support for Question 4 began as the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and over the course of the campaign marijuana backers outspent their opponents by more than a two-to-one margin. State campaign finance reports show Yes on 4 spent $6.3 million on the ballot fight to No on 4’s $2.9 million. The legalization push also had at its back public opinion polls showing nearly 60 percent of the country in support.
Voters on Tuesday approved a law that calls for a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee and regulate the marijuana industry, in the same way the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission regulates alcohol. The commission is to be appointed by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, a legalization opponent, and Gov. Charlie Baker, another opponent, is to appoint a 15-person Cannabis Advisory Board to guide the commission.
The ballot question requires the commission to begin accepting retail license applications from established medical marijuana dispensaries by Oct. 1, 2017. By Oct. 1, 2018, the commission must begin accepting retail licenses from others hoping to sell marijuana and associated products.
Massachusetts will join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska as states that have legalized cannabis. Voters in California, Maine, Arizona and Nevada also voted on legalization Tuesday, though results from those states were not immediately available.
Tuesday’s vote to legalize marijuana caps a steady and incremental march by marijuana advocates who, over three successive presidential elections, succeeded handily in decriminalizing marijuana, establishing a medical marijuana program and now legalizing widespread marijuana use.
The 2008 ballot initiative to make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil infraction rather than a criminal violation was approved by 65 percent voters. Four years later, medical marijuana was approved with 63 percent of voters in support.
But unlike 2008 and 2012, the 2016 legalization effort drew a high-profile, powerful and organized opposition. Most elected public officials — led by Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Attorney General Maura Healey — warned unsuccessfullly against legalization.
Using marijuana in public will remain illegal when prohibition ends Dec. 15, as will driving under the influence. Opponents of the ballot question pointed to the lack of any credible roadside impairment test for marijuana, like a breathalyzer is to alcohol.
Voters OK’ed a 3.75 percent excise tax on the sale of marijuana, on top of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities and towns could add an additional 2 percent local tax on marijuana sales. Retail sales by the third year of legalization are expected to total $1 billion, generating about $100 million in annual revenue for the state.
But legislative leaders — almost all of whom opposed legalization — have said they are not certain the effective 12 percent marijuana tax rate is high enough, and would be willing to open up the new law to make alterations.
“Should the voters decide on passing it I think anything and everything would be on the board in terms of whether it’s taxation, whether it’s regulation or whatever it may be,” DeLeo said last month.
At 12 percent, Massachusetts would have the lowest marijuana tax rate of any state that has legalized the adult use of the drug. Colorado taxes marijuana at 29 percent, Washington 37 percent, Oregon 17 percent and Alaska 25 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.
DeLeo told the News Service Oct. 24 he would not be inclined to call legislators back into session before January to consider changes to the new law.
“The voters have spoken on legalization. I look forward to swiftly implementing their will and working with Governor Baker and Speaker DeLeo to create a best-in-the-nation law that protects public safety while respecting the wishes of the voters,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said in a statement.