In first year of Massachusetts' retail cannabis sales to adults, receipts exceed $400 million; unpopular two-month shutdown stifles growth in 2020
Last update: May 18, 2020
On November 8, 2016, Bay State voters approved Question 4, the historic MPP-supported ballot initiative that ended marijuana prohibition for adults 21 and older. As a result, cannabis became legal for adults to grow and possess in Massachusetts on December 15, 2016.
The first sales began on November 20, 2018, when two licensed retail stores began selling cannabis to adults. At the end of 2019, more than 30 stores were open, and the state had logged more than $420 million in sales, generating an estimated $71 million in state tax revenue and up to $11.8 million in tax revenue for municipalities. The state’s first-of-its-kind social equity program finally began to show signs of success in 2019 after some frustrating initial delays. Additionally, the Cannabis Control Commission published draft regulations for home delivery and social consumption and is working to finalize those policies.
Unfortunately, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 23, 2020, Gov. Baker ordered adult-use cannabis businesses to shut down. This unpopular order lasted two months before it was announced that stores would be allowed to reopen for curbside delivery beginning on May 25.
Historic victory: The 2016 Yes on 4 Campaign
Having played an important role in decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing medical cannabis 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 cannabis 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.
Will 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, served as campaign manager. Jim 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 signature drive kicked off in fall of 2015. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of hundreds of signature gatherers, 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.
Throughout 2016, the campaign focused on several core messages that reinforced why legalizing and regulating cannabis was a more sensible policy than prohibition. On St. Patrick’s Day, for example, the campaign unveiled a billboard comparing the safety of cannabis to alcohol:
The campaign also aired several TV ads that highlighted the public health and safety benefits of legalizing and regulating cannabis, including one featuring retired police lieutenant Tom Nolan.
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.
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 cannabis 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 respected the will of the voters. Gov. Charlie Baker signed it into law on July 28, 2017. MPP’s summary of the revised law is available here.
Timeline of cannabis policy reform in Massachusetts
2008 – Voters approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis.
2012 – Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical cannabis for patients suffering from serious health issues. For more information on the state’s medical cannabis program, click here.
2016 – Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis for adults and establishing a regulated cannabis market similar to alcohol. The initiative took effect on December 15, eliminating penalties for limited possession and cultivation for adults’ use.
2017 – The legislature voted to delay implementation by six months, pushing the advent of legal retail sales forward from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2018. Legislators then began working on changes to the initiative. The House passed a bad bill that would have made major changes to the law, but MPP and its allies fought back and persuaded the Senate to defend the will of voters. The implementation law that ultimately passed kept most of the initiative intact, and Gov. Baker signed it into law.
2018 — The first two adult use retail stores opened for businesses on November 20, 2018.