You almost feel like a proud parent watching the Massachusetts legislature take a few uncertain, toddling steps toward marijuana law reform, even if it won’t get far before falling on its dear little bottom. A bill to repeal cannabis prohibition has been filed—that’s happened before—but this time it’s expected to be brought to the floor instead of being bottled up in committee. And it has co-sponsors in both the House and Senate.
It seems the legislators have awakened to the likelihood that voters will legalize marijuana by ballot initiative in 2016 if the legislature doesn’t act first. Senate President Stan Rosenberg of Amherst has said as much in remarks to the press: “We’ve had two successful ballot questions in separate elections, and we’re looking at the likelihood of another ballot question in 2016. So this debate is going to happen one way or another.”
The bill, filed as HD 3436 by Dave Rogers (D-Cambridge) in the House and Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville) in the Senate, “For legislation to legalize marijuana and establish a tax on the cannabis industry,” has some good provisions. It allows you to grow as much as you like at home as long as none of it is for sale, so the police could not bust down the door because they smell pot or see plants (or use that as an excuse to harass people). The bill also provides for hemp farming, though the current price of Massachusetts real estate makes it unlikely that much new land will be set aside for waving fields of hemp. And the bill envisions “cannabis cafes” where no alcohol would be served. Who knows what alternative music scenes might blossom in venues like those?
On the downside, the bill would create a new Cannabis Commission to regulate the industry, as if the commonwealth needs more bureaucracy. A saner solution would be to assign licensing authority to the Department of Revenue, or possibly the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
Another problem: The bill calls for taxes to be phased in gradually, to give the legal market a chance to establish itself and compete with the black market. But the taxes, once phased in, are too heavy. As a result, the black market might have a bad first year but would be back in force a few years later.
Of course, the bill isn’t likely to pass the legislature, and certainly not over Charlie Baker’s inevitable veto. However, seeing how the debate goes and how the media covers it may offer useful information about what provisions would be acceptable to Massachusetts, and portions of this bill may end up being incorporated into the initiative that ends up on the 2016 ballot.
In short, the legislature is mostly playing exhibition baseball (in contrast to the Vermont legislature, which may well pass a legalization bill this year or next and see it signed by Governor Shumlin). It’s diverting to watch while you, the citizens, wait ’til next year to step up to the plate.