Weed debate heats up in New England

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/17/weed-debate-heats-up-in-new-england/

BOSTON – The debate over marijuana legalization has been picking up steam locally but gaining attention nationally, as activists on both sides of the issue consider the possibility that the leafy greens may soon be legal in all six New England states.

Two New England States – Massachusetts and Maine – will more than likely let the voters decide whether to legalize marijuana in November. The other four – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire – are considering legislation that would legalize the substance.

Massachusetts and Maine: let the voters decide

The Bay State legalized marijuana for medicinal use by ballot initiative in 2013. Today, pro-pot activists seek to let voters decide whether to allow those over the age of 21 to grow marijuana plants and to carry one ounce of the drug outside of their homes.

The state’s senior senator, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a strong supporter of medical marijuana, said last year that she is open to legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In a Feb. 8 letter to the Centers for Disease Control, Warren asked the Center to explore the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

But Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who has been at the front lines of the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts, opposes recreational marijuana. Healey, also Democrat, recently told the Patriot Ledger that she is “strongly opposed” to legalizing the drug, pointing to reports of Colorado users’ auto accidents and fatalities in the wake of legalization.

“What’s most profound to me is what this means for young people,” Healey told the South Shore paper, adding that a specific concerns she has is children and young people ingesting food mixed with marijuana.

Like Massachusetts, Maine is seeking to add a legalization question to the 2016 ballot. The Maine ballot question would allow adults over the age of 21 to possess marijuana and would license retail marijuana facilities. The group proposing the Maine ballot initiative recently submitted more than the requisite number of signatures to the Maine Secretary of State’s office, paving the way for the measure to appear on the ballot in November.

Outside money pouring in

The campaigns to legalize pot in both Massachusetts and Maine are heavily supported by money and activists from out of state, and even from outside New England.

In Massachusetts, 44 percent of the $447,500 raised by local activists in 2015 came from other states, according to a report by MassLive.com.

A Washington-D.C. group contributed $126,500 to the Massachusetts effort, and Colorado special interest groups have donated $41,000. Capital Management, a New York investment firm that works in financing for the marijuana industry also donated $10,000.

One of the largest players on the national scene is the Marijuana Policy Project, which formerly received funding from billionaire and liberal activist George Soros. Founded in 1995, the group has helped local activists to draft ballot initiatives and finance their campaigns. The Project’s efforts at the state level have, like the Massachusetts and Maine campaigns, all adopted the campaign name “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.” The lawyer who drafted the Colorado initiative that passed in 2012 helped to write the Maine proposal.

The Project is one of the largest financial contributors to the Maine initiative, contributing more than $15,000 in cash and close to $28,000 in in-kind donations for staff time and technology assistance. New York City based Drug Policy Alliance also donated $50,000.  And a Washington D.C. based political action committee donated approximately $105,000.

Efforts to legalize through legislation

Other New England states, including New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are currently debating legalization by legislation.

In the Granite state, three legalization bills have been filed, although two dissipated in the House. The third (HB 1610) is pending before a committee of the New Hampshire House, but will likely face a tough battle in the New Hampshire Senate, which has killed legalization and decriminalization bills previously.

In the Green Mountain state, a legalization bill (SB 241) cleared the Vermont Senate Judiciary and Finance committees. The bill is supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, and could soon be headed for a Senate floor vote. It would then move to the Vermont House for consideration.

Connecticut state Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) has filed a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in that state for the second consecutive year.  The Nutmeg state recently legalized medical marijuana for certain medical conditions. But Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has said that he is not comfortable taking the next step for full legalization.  

In Rhode Island, state Rep. Scott Slater, (D-Providence) said that he will file a legalization bill this week, sponsoring legislation for the fifth consecutive year.  His legislation has important political support from the other side of the aisle – Republican House Leader Brian Newberry (R-North SMithfield) favors the legislation. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo announced last week that that she wants to raise $8.4 million in her annual spending plan by charging a $150 annual fee for medical marijuana patients and a $350 annual fee for caregivers for each marijuana plant they grow in the Ocean state.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis

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