Column: Moving Forward Safely with Marijuana Legalization

Last week Governor Baker signed into law legislation that I believe will make Massachusetts a national model when it comes to safely regulating the legal sale and consumption of marijuana. This legislation fully respects the will and intent of the voters — who voted last November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana — while taking strong steps to ensure that we don’t turn a criminal justice problem into a public health problem.

For me, the signing of this bill was also the culmination of a two and a half year journey into the minutiae of marijuana policy. To be honest, marijuana was not high on my list of priority issues when Senate President Stan Rosenberg appointed me to Chair a Special Senate Committee on Marijuana in early 2015. President Rosenberg had the foresight to anticipate that the question of marijuana legalization might be on the ballot in 2016, and he knew this is a complex issue that would require the Senate to be well prepared.

The Special Committee conducted extensive research, interviewed dozens of marijuana policy experts, and traveled to Colorado to learn from that state’s experience as the first to legalize recreational marijuana. We found that marijuana legalization involves dozens of policy questions, from how to regulate what is likely to be a new billion dollar industry to what kinds of products should be allowed for sale and how they can be marketed to challenges involving conflicting state and federal laws, and much more. We published our findings and recommendations in a detailed report in March 2016.

I concluded that I could support marijuana legalization in Massachusetts, but only if public health and safety were put ahead of industry profits. I made the decision to oppose Question 4 because I believed that the authors of this ballot question (marijuana activists and industry players) did not adequately address public health and safety concerns, particularly what I feared would be industry efforts to target youth as we have seen with the tobacco and alcohol industries.

After the passage of Question 4, the legislature created a new Committee on Marijuana Policy to gather input from all stakeholders and work as quickly as possible to fix the serious flaws in the ballot question. That launched a six month process that entailed numerous public hearings around the state and intensive discussions with all stakeholders — including public health experts, law enforcement, state and municipal officials, businesses, medical marijuana dispensaries, patients, as well as the activists who successfully campaigned for the ballot question — to understand their concerns and how best to address them.

The legislation that resulted from this process is a very strong bill that addressed many of these concerns, including my own. I believe this legislation fully respects the will of the voters; will replace the current black market with a safe, tightly regulated, legal market; ensures very strong public health and safety protections to reduce underage use and excessive consumption; and promotes a responsible industry that is diverse, encourages local players, and helps rather than hurts communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

I believe many of the specific provisions in this legislation will make Massachusetts a national model for how to safely and effectively legalize marijuana. These include: a strong, independent regulatory body that has the necessary expertise and will not be subject to undue industry or political influence; a careful merging of the oversight of medical marijuana with recreational marijuana along with stronger protections for patients; the strongest product, packaging, labeling, and marketing requirements and restrictions in the nation; a comprehensive research and data collection program to guide future public policy; public health and safety campaigns; various social justice provisions to address past inequities and harms of the war on drugs; a special commission on ways to prevent and address drugged driving; strong standards for energy and water usage and other environmental concerns in marijuana cultivation; and a responsible tax rate that appropriately balances the need for revenue to cover regulatory and social costs while driving out the black market.

We are on track to proceed with marijuana legalization, with legal sales expected to begin by the middle of next year. I have no doubt we still have much to learn and there will be bumps along the road, but I’m optimistic that Massachusetts can do this right.