Senate Committee Urges State To Proceed With Caution On Legal Recreational Marijuana

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In January, Sens. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), John Keenan (D-Quincy), Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) and Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) listen as Jim Elftmann, chief operating officer of River Rock Cannabis, explains how marijuana plants are grown inside the Denver dispensary. (Steve Brown/WBUR)
In January, Sens. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), John Keenan (D-Quincy), Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) and Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) listen as Jim Elftmann, chief operating officer of River Rock Cannabis, explains how marijuana plants are grown inside the Denver dispensary. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

On Beacon Hill Tuesday, a special committee of the state Senate focusing on marijuana released its report of recommendations, should Massachusetts voters approve legalizing recreational marijuana this fall.

While not taking a position for or against legalization, the report strikes a cautionary tone, identifying few benefits and many potential pitfalls should Massachusetts become the fifth state to legalize recreational pot.

To Some, It's Not A 'Simple Yes Or No Question'

"It's the committee's view that it would be prudent for Massachusetts to take a cautious approach to considering marijuana legalization," said committee Chairman Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat. He said the process of legalization — and its consequences — are complex.

"There's very little of the public debate, at least so far, that gets at the complexity of what really should be part of this debate, which is again, not that this is a simple yes or no question, but, it's all of these different important issues that have to be wrestled with," Lewis said.

And if voters approve recreational marijuana legalization, it will be up to the Legislature to wrestle with many of the issues identified in the 118-page report.

Concerns About Kids, Edibles And Home-Grow Operations

Among them: how to keep marijuana products out of the hands of children. The committee suggests setting the minimum age to purchase marijuana at 21, as is called for in the referendum.

The committee also recommends prohibiting the manufacture and sale of products that could appeal to youths, such as THC-laced candy bars and gummy bears. In states that have approved recreational marijuana use, roughly half of the marijuana products consumed are edibles.

Lewis said it's not the committee's intent to ban all of those products.

"We recognize that that's something that some people like to consume," said Lewis. "I think there are legitimate uses for edibles also in the medical market, for people who would have difficulty smoking or vaping. But we are worried that some kinds of edibles can both cause over-consumption by adults, particularly where the servings are not understood, you know, the amount of THC per serving, and also could be accidentally consumed by kids."

Another area of concern for the committee is driving under the influence of marijuana. The report calls for the establishment of a legal limit for THC blood concentration, much like what exists for blood alcohol content.

The committee also questions a provision of the likely ballot question that allows adults to grow up to six cannabis plants and keep a dozen seedlings for personal use in their homes. The committee estimates each of those plants, when mature, could produce $4,000 to $5,000 worth of marijuana, which they said is far more than could be used by an individual.

Politicians Weigh The Value Of Legal Pot

Supporters argue that, among other reasons, the legalization of marijuana would take pot purchases off the black market and generate tax dollars. As the initiative is written, the committee estimates the state's potential legal marijuana market to be worth half a billion dollars, generating $50 to $60 million annually in tax revenue within the first few years of legal recreational marijuana sales. Lewis said even if the tax intake was doubled, it wouldn't be a windfall.

"There might be some money that could help in certain areas, but again, it's not going to solve the T problems, it's not going to solve our school funding problems. It's not going to fix our our roads," said Lewis.

The committee is recommending taxing the growing and sale of marijuana anywhere from 20 to 46 percent, which is well above the 12 percent called for in the ballot question.

Lewis said he intends to remain neutral regarding the referendum, but other members of the committee are not.

State Sens. Michael Moore (D-Millbury), Vinnie deMacedo (R-Plymouth) and Mike Rodrigues (D-Westport) testified Monday before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee against a bill that mirrors what is likely to be put before voters in November.

Rodrigues said this is not just about letting someone smoke a joint.

"It's about consuming as much marijuana as you can in as many different forms as you can," he said. "It's about them marketing these products to encourage people to increase their consumption of marijuana. To those who have never consumed marijuana to start consuming marijuana. So it's not about your right as a consenting, responsible adult to stay home and smoke a joint. We're beyond that. This is about big business."

Gov. Charlie Baker said he's looking forward to reading the Senate report, but also is opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana.

He, along with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey, penned an op-ed piece published in The Boston Globe over the weekend, urging voters to reject the referendum.

"The complete decriminalization of it, based on a lot of the information that's come out of both Washington and Colorado, causes me to have great concern about this," said Baker.

All eight of the state Senate's special committee on marijuana traveled to Denver in January to learn more about the transitions and results of Colorado's legal pot industry.

Supporters of the referendum argue the black market of marijuana was caused by its prohibition, and legalization would reduce problems associated with the illicit market.

While it's unlikely the bill before the Legislature legalizing marijuana will be approved, voters may say otherwise.

Two pro-marijuana initiatives that have been placed before voters over the last eight years — one decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use and the other allowing the use of medical marijuana — each were overwhelmingly passed by voters.

This article was originally published on March 08, 2016.

This segment aired on March 8, 2016.


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Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



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