I just returned last evening from the 26th annual Boston Freedom Rally on the historic Boston Common, a lovely event that has become more celebration than protest as Massachusetts moves ever closer to ending prohibition and fully legalizing marijuana.
The weather this year was fabulous, with bright blue autumn New England skies and comfortable fall temperatures, the crowds were huge, especially on Saturday (the largest crow I recall experiencing in my twenty-plus years attending), and the overwhelming feeling was one of confident optimism at this latest Freedom Rally, as Massachusetts looks forward to the opportunity to fully legalize marijuana by way of a voter initiative in November of 2016.
In fact, there are currently two competing initiatives starting to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2016, and both are great for consumers.
Two Competing Legalization Initiatives
One, an effort know as Bay State Repeal, is a project organized primarily by long-time in-state activists involved with MassCann/NORML, the NORML state affiliate in Massachusetts, led by attorney Steve Epstein from Georgetown, Mass. The other, The Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, is a project organized and funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, although the standard MPP model has been tailored somewhat by the input of a handful of long-time, in-state legalization activists, including especially Richard Evans and Michael Cutler from Northampton, Mass.
The major difference between the two approaches involves the degree of regulation for the proposed legal marijuana industry.
Bay State Repeal
Indeed, the Bay State Repeal proposal has no limitation on the amount of marijuana one can cultivate or possess for personal use, and the only restriction is a prohibition on the sale to minors. It is a version of what is frequently called the “tomato model,” and calls for marijuana to be treated like other legal commodities. Licensed retail stores may sell any amount of marijuana to those 21 and above. Retail sales of marijuana would be subject to the state’s regular sales tax rate of 6.25 percent.
The Bay State Repeal proposal would also authorize marijuana farms, locally licensed marijuana farmers’ markets and marijuana products producers to be licensed by the state. It would also permit municipalities to license cannabis cafes or private clubs where marijuana could be sold and consumed, but not alcohol. And it includes provisions protecting lawful marijuana users from being deemed guilty of abuse or neglect of their minor children, without other evidence; and provisions attempting to protect employees from being fired for their off-job marijuana use.
Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol places strict limits on the amount of marijuana an individual may possess or cultivate. Adults could possess up to one ounce of marijuana out of the home, and up to 10 ounces in an enclosed, locked space within their home; and could cultivate up to six marijuana plants, with a limit of 12 per household.
The CRMLA proposal would license commercial growers, product manufacturing facilities and testing facilities, and would establish the Cannabis Control Commission to implement and enforce regulations controlling the legal marijuana industry. Retail marijuana sales would be subject to a special 3.7 percent excise tax, as well as the regular state sales tax of 6.25 percent. In addition, municipalities would be permitted to enact an additional 2 percent tax on retail sales within their jurisdiction. Localities under this proposal would have the authority to permit on-premise consumption at licensed venues, if approved by local initiative.
This proposal also seeks to protect marijuana-smoking parents from charges of child abuse or neglect, without specific evidence beyond their use of marijuana; but does not limit an employer’s right to fire an employee for off-the-job marijuana use.
Neither proposal would permit public smoking or change the current laws regarding driving while impaired from marijuana.
How Do We Choose?
Now that both proposals have been certified by the state Attorney General, supporters of each measure must collect 64,750 signatures from voters by November 2015 to qualify for the 2016 ballot. If one qualifies, and one does not, all proponents of legalization must get behind the one that’s on the ballot.
As a consumer, both proposals are attractive. Smokers in 46 states would dearly love to have either of these plans in place in their state. They both end the practice of treating marijuana smokers like criminals, both permit personal cultivation, and both establish a legal market where consumers can buy their marijuana.
Obviously, if both qualify for the ballot, it has the real potential to split the legalization vote and leave prohibition in place. So one could hope that the two sides will eventually get together behind one proposal or the other, based on what the polling demonstrates can realistically win. But that is far from certain, as early efforts to find common ground were unsuccessful.
So we need to let this process work itself out, and the result may come down to which of the two has the funding to collect the required signatures, and run a professional campaign. We should keep our powder dry until we see the results of this next phase.
Helpful State Supreme Court Ruling
One additional promising development occurred in Massachusetts over the last few days, leading up to the Freedom Rally. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, their highest court, handed down an important decision holding that because the possession of a small amount of marijuana in the state has, since 2008, been decriminalized, with the penalty reduced to a $100 civil fine, the police may no longer use suspicion that the occupant of an automobile may possess marijuana as legal justification to search the car or the occupants of the car, without a search warrant.
“Permitting police to stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion that an occupant possesses marijuana does not serve objectives” of the new law, Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the majority, explaining that allowing such stops “does not refocus police efforts on pursuing more serious crime,” a stated goal of changing the law in 2008.
Botsford’s opinion followed earlier Supreme Judicial Court rulings in 2011, and again in 2014, holding the odor of burned marijuana alone does not provide grounds for police to order occupants to exit a car, and that the smell of burned or unburned marijuana does not justify searching a vehicle without a warrant.
Which makes Massachusetts an even more inviting place to live, or to visit, if one is a marijuana smoker. Now let’s finish the job and enact full legalization by voter initiative in 2016. It’s our breakout year, and Massachusetts should be a big part of that.