Statehouse Report: First Comes Pot, Then Comes The Regulations

Legally grown marijuana in Colorado. Photo by Brett Levin / Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
Written by Felicia Gans

By: Felicia Gans
BU Statehouse Program

If Question 4 on Tuesday’s ballot passes, you’ll be allowed to buy marijuana legally on Dec. 15. The catch? The person selling you the marijuana will still be doing so illegally.

Question 4, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana across the commonwealth, lays out a timeline for implementation that includes a nine-month planning period for regulatory commissions to organize their efforts.

Retailers can start submitting their applications for a recreational marijuana selling license on Oct. 1, 2017, and the Cannabis Control Commission, created under the question, will be expected to either accept or reject that license within 90 days.

If they take the full 90 days, that could put the earliest legal selling date at about Jan. 1, 2018, more than a year after Massachusetts residents will be allowed to buy it.

“We don’t want this limbo period to go on any longer than it absolutely has to,” said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Yes on 4 campaign.

Borghesani said because it would be “impossible” to get the licensing processes off the ground by Dec. 15, proponents didn’t want to limit the implementation of the other pieces of Question 4.

“We wanted to respect the will of people and put into effect the things that we could, and one of those is the possession limits and the general legalization of marijuana,” he said. “We don’t want to delay addressing the social injustices that have occurred under prohibition.”

But Norwood Police Chief William G. Brooks III, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, is worried that black market sales will grow    substantially with the delay of organized regulation.

His concern is also fed, in part, because Question 4 will also allow Massachusetts residents to grow up to 12 plants per household.

“They’re going to have to continue to buy it on the street until the cannabis commission and all those people get hired,” he said. “So will there be an uptick in black market sales? I suppose there will be, but that will actually continue to get worse.”

He said the 37 days between Question 4’s potential passage and its implementation should not be too much an issue for police departments, noting that “it’s not difficult to train on something you’re not going to do anymore.”

Like many opposed to Question 4, however, Brooks is wary of legalizing marijuana without the existence of a comprehensive on-the-spot test for the drug.

“If you have alcohol and you go out and drive, if you come to our attention, it’s easier for us to make that case,” Brooks said, citing the ease of training officers to use breathalyzers. “With marijuana, it’s much more difficult to make the arrest and if we do make the arrest, the chance of conviction is lower.”

Gardner Police Chief Neil Erickson agreed that his biggest concern for now is the absence of a drug-impaired driving test. He expects the passage of Question 4 would create “chaos on the streets.”

“There’s no test, no way to come up with a valid test at this point that actually can hold an operator accountable,” he said.

But State Police say worrying about the enforcement of Question 4 is premature.

David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, declined to comment until after the election on any plans for enforcement.

“The question presumes Question 4 will pass,” he wrote in an email. “Our view is that that’s a premature assumption at this point.”

Nevertheless, local police departments are preparing.

In Northampton, Police Chief Jody Kasper has been worried about driving under the influence of marijuana since the drug became legal for medical use. About two years ago, the department sent two officers to the Arizona Drug Recognition Expert program, where they learned to identify drug-impaired drivers. Northampton sent another officer this year.

“It is all free training … so that’s nothing that comes out of the city’s pockets. But the course is very challenging, one of the most challenging certifications police officers can get,” she said. “It has to be something the officer is into, has an interest in, and is very good at.”

Montague Police Chief Charles Dodge said his department has looked into the drug training program, but hasn’t sent officers to be trained. For now, his department is reaching out to local district attorney offices and police chief organizations in anticipation of the question passing.

“We are going to have new issues that we’re going to have to address and learn how to adjust,” he said. “If they legalize it, we’ll just have to learn … it’s going to happen quick. It’s going to be a big learning curve for everyone.”

Statehouse correspondents Kaitlin Junod and Oriana Durand contributed to this report.

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