Massachusetts Ballot Question 4: The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana

This November, Mass residents will also be voting on a series of ballot initiatives in addition to the presidential election and other state and local races. As is standard, they were able to be added to the ballot due to a petition drive by their sponsors. This post is third in a series of four posts covering the ballot questions. You can view the rundown of the first ballot question on adding a second slot parlor here, the rundown on Question 2, about lifting the cap on charter schools, here, and finally the breakdown of Question 3, about regulation of farm for the protection of farm animals, here. Thanks to Calais H. for asking about this particular question.

Massachusetts Ballot Question 4: The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana

See full text of the petition here, and the text of the court affirmation here. Below, find the summary of the question as it will appear on the ballot (as the petition itself is rather long).


The proposed law would permit the possession, use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana in limited amounts by persons age 21 and older and would remove criminal penalties for such activities. It would provide for the regulation of commerce in marijuana, marijuana accessories, and marijuana products and for the taxation of proceeds from sales of these items.

The proposed law would authorize persons at least 21 years old to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside of their residences; possess up to ten ounces of marijuana inside their residences; grow up to six marijuana plants in their residences; give one ounce or less of marijuana to a person at least 21 years old without payment; possess, produce or transfer hemp; or make or transfer items related to marijuana use, storage, cultivation, or processing.

The measure would create a Cannabis Control Commission of three members appointed by the state Treasurer which would generally administer the law governing marijuana use and distribution, promulgate regulations, and be responsible for the licensing of marijuana commercial establishments. The proposed law would also create a Cannabis Advisory Board of fifteen members appointed by the Governor. The Cannabis Control Commission would adopt regulations governing licensing qualifications; security; record keeping; health and safety standards; packaging and labeling; testing; advertising and displays; required inspections; and such other matters as the Commission considers appropriate. The records of the Commission would be public records.

The proposed law would authorize cities and towns to adopt reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of operating marijuana businesses and to limit the number of marijuana establishments in their communities. A city or town could hold a local vote to determine whether to permit the selling of marijuana and marijuana products for consumption on the premises at commercial establishments.

The proceeds of retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products would be subject to the state sales tax and an additional excise tax of 3.75%. A city or town could impose a separate tax of up to 2%. Revenue received from the additional state excise tax or from license application fees and civil penalties for violations of this law would be deposited in a Marijuana Regulation Fund and would be used subject to appropriation for administration of the proposed law.

Marijuana-related activities authorized under this proposed law could not be a basis for adverse orders in child welfare cases absent clear and convincing evidence that such activities had created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child. The proposed law would not affect existing law regarding medical marijuana treatment centers or the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence. It would permit property owners to prohibit the use, sale, or production of marijuana on their premises (with an exception that landlords cannot prohibit consumption by tenants of marijuana by means other than by smoking); and would permit employers to prohibit the consumption of marijuana by employees in the workplace. State and local governments could continue to restrict uses in public buildings or at or near schools. Supplying marijuana to persons under age 21 would be unlawful.

The proposed law would take effect on December 15, 2016.

A YES VOTE would allow persons 21 and older to possess, use, and transfer marijuana and products containing marijuana concentrate (including edible products) and to cultivate marijuana, all in limited amounts, and would provide for the regulation and taxation of commercial sale of marijuana and marijuana products.

A NO VOTE would make no change in current laws relative to marijuana.

This proposed law would make Massachusetts among the first states to fully legalize marijuana, and the Bay State joins four other states in having legalization on the table in this fall’s election. That said, carrying a small amount (under one ounce) is already decriminalized in the state and results in a fine and having to turn the substance over to police. Greater amounts, however, do fall under the Controlled Substances Act.

The talk around this question is heated, with strong (and not so strong) arguments on either side. As for the facts, all I can say is that the science is cloudy at best. Research on marijuana has been heavily restricted for the last several decades, so dangers and benefits of consumption aren’t proven with a compendium of information. The Obama administration moved earlier this year to allow for fewer restrictions surrounding research so more studies can be done, but research done well can take years. We may not know for a while what impact be it positive or negative that smoking marijuana has, or why and how.

That said, the negative effects that have been recorded in studies seem to have been accounted for in this law. Some of the little research available suggests that “heavy” marijuana use among teens aged 16 to 18 may negatively impact spatial understanding and attention span in the long-term. Accordingly, the proposed law would allow people only over the age of 21 to purchase and/or grow marijuana. And while some worry that making it legal for young adults may trickle down to increased usage among teens, the rate of teen marijuana usage remained unchanged in Colorado.

And about the idea of marijuana being a gateway drug- Well, again, the jury is out on that research. In April, the New York Times had a (n admittedly lopsided) discussion in its editorial section that highlights some good arguments for and against marijuana usage and its status as a gateway drug. There is some scientific proof that marijuana usage leads to the use of “harder” drugs later in life, but I’m mainly finding articles that are 20 to 30 years old.

You may be wondering about the risks of increased THC, as you’ve likely heard the arguments saying that marijuana isn’t the same as it was just a few decades ago. And indeed, that may be true. A review of confiscated marijuana between the 1980s and 1990s shows an increase in the level of THC. And, some research shows that higher THC potency leads to a greater impairment of cognitive functions, and higher THC levels are also associated more closely with withdraw symptoms, suggesting addiction to marijuana is related to THC (yes, marijuana can be addictive). However, there has not been a concerted effort made to track THC levels, so there isn’t conclusive evidence about how much levels have risen.

Finally, what about the people struggling with regular pain or nausea, can they get relief from their symptoms with marijuana use under this law? Yes and no. Medical marijuana is already possible to obtain and consume in MA, so long as you have a diagnosis from your doctor that you may benefit from the use of marijuana. There is a permitting process, but theoretically you should be able to carry a reasonable amount to care for your symptoms. That said, it is possible it may be less costly to grow your own plant for your consumption than for you to go to a dispensary, but I honestly don’t know the costs involved and a cost analysis from a legitimate source is not available at this time.

So, could this law pose a great opportunity to get some great research done, ease some pain, and make some tax revenue, or is the risk too great to take? See some more arguments below and decide for yourself.

Arguments in support of the proposal:

  1. Marijuana can provide real relief for people struggling with pain and nausea, like cancer patients. People could be able to access the now-legal marijuana for pain relief, etc and avoid getting hooked on the heavily addictive opiates. The ability to “grow your own” or buy from a friend or neighbor could also be more affordable than prescription medication.
  2. Arrests for marijuana possession, distribution, and cultivation create a huge burden on our court system, disproportionately affect lives, and cost taxpayers money. While possession of small amounts has been decriminalized in MA, people still get arrested for having larger amounts, and can be prosecuted for carrying small amounts if arrested for another crime. The punishments are too great for a crime that wouldn’t even be a crime under this bill, and contribute to a backlog in the court system and the overpopulation of prisons. Additionally, the people who are charged with these crimes then struggle to find employment and provide for themselves and their families. Removing these penalties would make all of these issues go away, which brings us to the next point.
  3. We could benefit from the regulation and taxation of marijuana. Taxation of marijuana could lead to extra spending money for towns and the state. However, there is a lack of reliable data, so spending projections are sketchy at best (MA Senate Committee does not believe it will be worth it).
  4. Finally, marijuana is here. Countless people use or have used marijuana (One Pew Research survey found that 49% of Americans have tried it), so it might as well be regulated.

Regulate Massachusetts is leading the fight for “Yes on 4”. You can find more about their arguments here.

Arguments against the proposal:

  1. Massachusetts has already decriminalized marijuana and authorized medical marijuana. People are not being sought out and jailed for marijuana use, but for large scale growth and distribution schemes. In fact, the proposed would allow for people to grow in their own homes, which, in Colorado, has led to a whole new black market.
  2. There may be health and safety risks. Fatal car accidents involving marijuana doubled in one year after the legalization in Washington, and the studies available suggest that marijuana can impact brain development in young people. We should wait for further developments from other states before approving it for MA.
  3. Marijuana is now more potent than it was a generation ago, and there is not enough research to know the impact of this. Allowing the legal widespread consumption may have unintended consequences.

Safe and Healthy Massachusetts is leading the fight for “No on 4”. You can find out more about their arguments here.

How did I do? Forget something? Learn something new? Let me know in comments below.


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