Legislature’s joint committee on joints convenes (mostly) prohibitionist forces
The Massachusetts legislature’s newly formed Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy is being billed in local media and among lawmakers themselves as a fair and balanced body fit to oversee the legislative fate of our 2016 marijuana legalization law, which passed with more than 1.8 million votes. But upon closer scrutiny, the Beacon Hill committee is a biased bunch, virtually reefer mad across the board.
The marijuana comm has been formed to hear the 75-plus cannabis bills already filed at the State House, many of which would significantly alter the law passed by voters in November. The appointed pot purveyors expect to approve new laws before the summer, while Gov. Charlie Baker says he wants a rewrite by May. Most concerning for cannabis advocates are bills proposed by State Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester, an anti-weed evangelist who, among other things, seeks to cut legal plant counts for micro-grows and to limit the home possession limit from 10 ounces to two.
Standing at odds with her prohibitionist colleagues in both parties, Somerville Sen. Pat Jehlen, who was made a co-chair of the committee, represents a sort of coup for reformers, but to celebrate that appointment alone ignores the larger picture and the bigger threat posed by this new committee.
To understand the fix, it helps to start with the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts. A coalition that opposed the winning legalization initiative, its supporters included eight of the 17 committee members: Sen. Lewis, and Reps. Viriato M. deMacedo, Michael Finn, Tackey Chan, John Velis, Roselee Vincent, Hannah Kane, and Stephan Hay. Just one vote short of a majority, these members endorsed a campaign stacked with demonstrable prohibitionist lies. Some members, like Kane and deMacedo, have also received funding from the commercial alcohol industry.
There were worthy legislators who endorsed the cannabis initiative to choose from. Reps. Mike Connolly, Jay Livingstone, Marjorie Decker, Mary Keefe, and Mike Moran, as well as Sen. William Brownsberger, were available but left out. Besides Jehlen, the only members who backed legalization are Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. David Rogers. Do the math—that’s eight to three in favor of the losing campaign.
Of the remaining wildcards (who didn’t openly endorse either campaign), there’s hope in Rep. Aaron Vega, who co-sponsored a 2015 marijuana legalization initiative. Vega once said, “As adults we have access to alcohol and other things. We need to make sure this is actually a right and choice adults can have.” There’s also Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who is on the fence and participated in a “fact-finding” farce in Colorado last year with Lewis and others, but who reps a district in which more than 60 percent of voters pulled for the initiative.
Marijuana advocates shouldn’t overlook the influence of Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo, a Safe and Healthy ally whose annointed co-chair, Rep. Mark Cusack, apparently has no position on legalization. Back when he was but a lad on Beacon Hill in 2011, Cusack was caught in the House chamber after hours with a female friend, and reportedly lied about his name upon being caught. Following a so-called investigation into the matter, DeLeo let the freshman off the hook. Fast-forward to 2017…
Cusack’s district voted solidly against legalization, yet he still hasn’t staked a public position on pot, and he tells the media he’s open-minded on the issue (this is typically reported without question). Which sounds fishy, since he was handpicked by the prohibitionist speaker. Asked how he voted on the 2016 measure, Cusack told the Globe, “My ballot is private.” Kind of makes you wonder if DeLeo knows how Cusack voted. Hmm.
In charge of the committee or not, it’s likely that the influence of Lewis and his big old mouth will serve to steer the group. Lewis has in the past consistently opposed marijuana reform, including the 2012 and 2016 ballot wins, and has more recently filed several bills that seek to invalidate much of the legalization law. A close look at the senator’s campaign finance account, however, suggests his motivation—in attempting to limit home grows, for starters—may lie in more than simple principled opposition.
Despite his reputation as a hater, as of his last report to the state, Lewis has accepted contributions from interests representing the medical and recreational marijuana industries, among them individuals tied to Patriot Care and NETA, as well as dispensary attorneys and consultants. Sources confirm that some of the aforementioned donors actually attended a commercial marijuana industry Christmas party fundraiser for Lewis. Think about that for a second—the senator now accepts money from the commercial marijuana industry that he campaigned against. All while other senators and reps, including many on the new committee, fatten their accounts with checks from the commercial alcohol industry and police unions.
With all of this in mind, legalizers have good reason to worry. In the larger frame, the concern is that money from the commercial cannabis industry is fueling the campaigns of elected officials and that many pols and business owners alike are hostile to micro-grows.
As for the committee, activists should pressure the potentially friendly members, especially Forry, James T. Welch, Adrian Madaro, and Nicholas A. Boldyga, since every bill that will be heard has an eight to three prohibitionist lead out of the gate.
Organizers of the marijuana legalization law have created a new website, defendquestion4.org, to provide supporters of the law info on how to best contact their elected reps.
ED. NOTE: A previous version of this article suggested that Tom Sannicandro and Brian Mannal could have been pro-legalization additions to the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy. They could have, but neither is still in office. We regret the error.