Massachusetts Votes to Legalize Marijuana

Question 4 has passed.

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After decades of advocacy and a long, contentious campaign, voters in Massachusetts have legalized marijuana, passing ballot Question 4, the Associated Press is reporting as results continue to roll in.

As of December 15, it will be legal in the state for adults 21 and older to use marijuana, possess up to 10 ounces of it, and grow up to 12 pot plants at home. The referendum’s passage also clears the way for marijuana retail stores to open in the state as early as January 1, 2018.

The state will now create a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee a new industry for the drug. Sales of marijuana will be subject to a 3.75 percent tax (on top of the usual 6.25 sales tax). Communities will also have the option to tack on an additional 2 percent in taxes, which they can keep and spend locally. It will remain illegal to use marijuana in public or to drive while intoxicated.

“Massachusetts voters yesterday made a choice between two systems, one that would keep marijuana illegal and keep criminals in control, and one that would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana and put commerce in the hands of licensed businesses under the control of state regulators and local authorities,” Yes on 4 spokesman Jim Borghesani said in a statement after the victory. “They chose a new path for Massachusetts, and we are both humbled and pleased by their decision.”

The result of the referendum is a rebuke of a majority of state politicians, who waged a bipartisan effort to oppose the ballot initiative via the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, whose leaders included Republican Gov. Charlie Baker as well as Democrats Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“We want to thank our incredible volunteers and bi-partisan coalition of supporters for their tireless work throughout this campaign,” Nick Bayer, No on 4’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “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. Voters chose to pass Question 4, we respect that vote, and now the work to implement this new law begins.”

In a year that broke records for ballot question fundraising, Proponents of Question 4 raised and spent roughly twice as much making their case to voters.

Those in favor of the question’s passage notably include Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who announced his support late in the campaign, as well as City Councilor Tito Jackson and Council President Michelle Wu, who were vocal proponents. The bid had outside help from PBS’ Rick Steves, a prominent legal pot advocate who toured the state and offered a mom-and-dad-friendly explanation of legalization’s merits.

“The voters have spoken on legalization,” Rosenberg said in a statement. “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.”

Opponents argued that making marijuana commercially available in Massachusetts might encourage more people to use the drug, might lead to an increase in the number of people who drive while high, and might make an epidemic of opioid abuse worse. They also made the argument that the edible marijuana products that shops will offer consumers—including candies, baked goods, and sodas—might appeal to children, who could be lured by advertising to try the drug, or be sickened by a marijuana edible they mistook for a snack.

But for those who advocated for the ballot question’s passage—and generations of pot proponents who have labored to undo a prohibition on a substance they say is no more dangerous than alcohol—this is a major victory that has implications far beyond making it legal to get high. Enforcement of a decades-long ban on the drug, advocates have argued, has helped create a pipeline to the prison system among the country’s most disadvantaged. Social justice groups including the ACLU have argued that enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately impacted minority communities. Decriminalizing the drug in 2008, while drastically reducing the number of people arrested for it, hasn’t diminished that disparity, they say.

Question 4’s passage, meanwhile, is expected to give rise to a major new industry, which analysts have speculated could be worth more than $1 billion, and bring in some $300 million in new revenue for the state. Opponents have questioned whether revenue from marijuana taxes will be enough to cover the cost of enforcing the new law, or pay for what they argued would be an increase in costs from emergency visits and other consequences of making it easier for residents to access marijuana.

The debate over the freshly approved marijuana law is far from over. Lawmakers have already discussed ways the Legislature might amend the law, including by tweaking regulations and raising the tax on marijuana sales to as much as 30 percent.

“We stand ready to work with all interested parties to make the legalized, taxed and regulated system adopted by voters as effective and successful as possible,” Borghesani, of the pro-Question 4 camp, said in his statement.

This is the third marijuana-related ballot question Massachusetts voters have passed in as many national elections. A ballot initiative that passed in 2008 removed criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug. Another one, in 2012, legalized buying and using the drug for medical purposes, and allowed dispensaries to sell cannabis to authorized patients.

Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the national Marijuana Policy Project, which had supported the measure, also responded in a statement:

Massachusetts has come a very long way on marijuana policy in just the last 10 years,” said Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which played a leading role in Question 4, as well as the successful 2008 initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession in Massachusetts. “We are committed to working with state and local officials to ensure Question 4 is implemented in the way voters intended. Massachusetts has the opportunity to set an example for neighboring states and inform lawmakers as they consider adopting similar policies via their legislatures. This was not just a big win for the Commonwealth, but also for New England.