Legislative battle ends with compromise; implementation can now begin
Last update: August 15, 2017
Although Question 4 won a decisive victory among voters, it soon became clear that the law would need to be defended from interference by the Massachusetts Legislature, which quickly moved to make changes to the implementation timeline and other key aspects of the law. Sparking controversy, a small group of legislators met in a special, non-transparent legislative session during the final days of 2016 to delay the opening of marijuana businesses by six months. Throughout the 2017 legislative session, MPP worked both inside and outside the statehouse to defend the will of the voters from further legislative interference.
Fortunately, thanks to thousands of supporters making calls and pressuring lawmakers, the legislature ultimately discarded a flawed proposal from the House and instead passed a compromise bill that largely respects the will of the voters. Gov. Charlie Baker signed it into law on July 28, 2017.
The legislation’s most significant changes to the original initiative relate to local control and taxes. The legislation adjusts the local control policy, allowing local government officials in towns that voted “no” on the 2016 ballot initiative to ban marijuana businesses until December 2019. For towns that voted “yes” in 2016, any bans must be placed on a local ballot for voters to approve. The maximum sales tax rate (which depends on whether towns adopt optional local taxes) will increase from 12% to 20%. Under the bill, the state tax will be 17% and the local option will be 3%.
The implementation law also:
- Merges the medical marijuana market into the adult-use market;
- Provides for medical establishments to transition from non-profit to for-profit entities;
- Provides for virtual separation of medical and adult-use markets at point of sale;
- Eliminates criminal offense for home cultivation by persons under 21;
- Removes criminal penalties for possession of under two ounces for persons 18 – 21;
- Provides for cultivation of industrial hemp;
- Expands the availability of sealing of criminal convictions to all prior marijuana convictions;
- Includes additional provisions for the benefit of farmers and craft marijuana cultivators;
- Requires study on, and actions to achieve, meaningful participation by minority, women, and veteran businesses;
- Establishes energy and environmental standards;
- Addresses communities disproportionately impacted by high arrest and incarceration rates;
- Provides for specific research agenda and baseline studies;
- Provides for allocation of revenues generated;
- Provides for indemnification of employees who, in professional capacity, carry out chapter 334;
- Provides for recommendations to assist veteran access to medical marijuana;
- Provides for special regulations to be promulgated for Cape Island counties;
- Requires science-based public health and public safety awareness campaigns;
- Establishes special commission on operating under the influence and impaired driving; and
- Provides for licensure and oversight of independent testing laboratories.
Current marijuana laws in Massachusetts
Possession of small amounts and limited home cultivation are legal: Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older. An adult may also cultivate up to six mature marijuana plants in their residence with no more than 12 mature plants in total per residence.
Retail marijuana stores are scheduled to open by July 1, 2018: State lawmakers and regulatory officials are currently laying the foundation for a regulated marijuana market. President of the Senate Stanley Rosenberg and other lawmakers have said publicly that retail marijuana stores will open in summer 2018.
Medical marijuana permitted: An individual may register as a medical marijuana patient if their doctor certifies that the individual suffers from one or more of the following conditions:
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Crohn’s disease
- HIV or AIDS
- hepatitis C
- multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician
Patients are allowed to purchase marijuana from registered marijuana dispensaries (RMDs). A patient may also appoint a caregiver to cultivate and provide medical marijuana if they are unable to access a state-authorized dispensary or if they can verify financial hardship.
Historic victory: The 2016 Yes on 4 Campaign
Having played an important role in decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing medical marijuana through ballot initiatives — in 2008 and 2012 respectively — the Marijuana Policy Project and local allies began laying the groundwork for a 2016 legalization campaign in 2015. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), as it was called, formed a drafting committee comprised of advocates, attorneys, and experts on marijuana businesses who wrote what would eventually become known as Question 4. The end product was a sensible proposal to end the failed policy of prohibition in a way that prioritized public health, safety, and social justice.
In July 2015, Will Luzier and Jim Borghesani were named as the leaders of the effort. Luzier, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who also served as executive director of the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention from 2008 until April 2015, became the campaign director. Borghesani, who filled the role of communications director, previously worked in top communications positions in the offices of the Massachusetts governor and as a journalist.
With the petition language written and able leaders at the helm of the campaign, the initiative was officially delivered to the attorney general’s office in August 2015. The signature drive then kicked off in the fall. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of hundreds of signature gatherers, the Massachusetts Secretary of State validated 70,739 signatures submitted by CRMLA in December of that year, clearing the first major hurdle necessary to put the initiative on the ballot. Later in June 2016, the campaign would successfully summit the approximately 11,000 signatures necessary to put the initiative on the ballot.
CRMLA became the Yes on 4 Campaign in July 2016 when the secretary of state announced that the initiative had officially qualified for the November ballot. In August, a crowd of supporters gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House to announce the kickoff of the Yes on 4 Campaign.
Throughout 2016, the campaign focused on several core messages that reinforced why legalizing and regulating marijuana was a more sensible policy than prohibition. On St. Patrick’s Day, for example, the campaign unveiled a billboard comparing the safety of marijuana to alcohol:
The campaign also aired several TV ads that highlighted the public health and safety benefits of legalizing and regulating marijuana, including one featuring retired police lieutenant Tom Nolan.
Along the way, the Yes on 4 Campaign picked up some major endorsements from prominent organizations including The Boston Globe. Additionally, politicians across the state — Boston City Council President Michelle Wu, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, and state legislators — campaigned in support of Question 4.
In the lead up to Election Day, hundreds of volunteers and student activists across the state dedicated their time and energy to support the Yes on 4 Campaign. Using cutting edge tools to assist with door-to-door canvassing and voter outreach, the campaign mobilized a robust get-out-the-vote effort.
Ultimately, Question 4 prevailed on November 8 with 53.6% of the vote, winning in the vast majority of cities and towns across the state. In December 2016, when the election results were officially certified, possession and cultivation of marijuana became legal for adults in Massachusetts, and the process of establishing a regulated marijuana market was underway.
Timeline of marijuana policy reform in Massachusetts
2008 – Voters approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana
2012 – Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana for patients suffering from serious health issues
2016 – Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for adults and establishing a regulated marijuana market similar to alcohol