Court clears marijuana question for November ballot

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STATE HOUSE — Just hours after the Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way for a marijuana legalization ballot initiative to go to voters in November, the group working to legalize cannabis turned in what it said is enough signatures to secure its slot on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Just after noon, the campaign handed in to the secretary of state’s office the last of more than 25,000 signatures — 10,792 of which must be certified to guarantee the question a place on the ballot.

Campaign communications director Jim Borghesani said he is positive enough signatures will be certified and voters will get the chance to weigh in on legalization in just over four months.

“We’re very confident that we’ll have more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and we’re very pleased to be turning them in today as the final stage of the signature process,” he said while standing steps away from the secretary of state’s elections division window. “At this point, we have very little doubt that it’s going to be on the ballot in November.”

Earlier in the day, the SJC ordered the attorney general to re-write the title and one-sentence description of the ballot initiative that would legalize the adult use of marijuana.

In the decision handed down Wednesday morning, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote that “the title assigned to the petition and the one-sentence statement describing the effect of a ‘yes’ vote are misleading,” but the court concluded that Attorney General Maura Healey’s office “did not err in certifying the petition for inclusion on the ballot,” as opponents had argued.

The title of the petition, “Marijuana Legalization,” is “unfair and clearly misleading,” Gants wrote, because the petition also relates to the regulation and taxation of cannabis and cannabis products. Instead, the SJC ruled that the title should be changed to “Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana.”

The one-sentence summary that describes the effect of a ‘yes’ vote is also “clearly misleading in some respects” because it does not specify that THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana responsible for the high, and edible products that contain THC would also become legal if the initiative passes.

“The original statement is misleading in that it fails to make clear that the new law will allow, in limited amounts, not only the possession and use of marijuana but also the possession and use of products containing marijuana concentrate, including edible products,” Gants wrote. “The reference to ‘marijuana products’ in the second clause of the sentence … does not adequately inform voters that the proposed act would legalize the sale of edible marijuana products, especially where the summary fails to make this as clear as it could.”

When the SJC heard oral arguments on the case in early June, John Sheft, an attorney representing 59 citizens opposed to the possible ballot question, argued that those who signed the petition were deceived because they were not told the question would allow marijuana-infused food and drink products or high-potency products.

“Having read your summary, I would have no idea that this authorized the infusion of hallucinogens into food and drink for sale at all,” Justice Robert Cordy told the attorney general’s office during oral arguments. “Don’t you think the public, the voters, would sort of like to know that?”

The Campaign for Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, which opposes the marijuana ballot question with the backing of Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, said the group is happy the SJC recognized the importance of pointing out that the ballot question would legalize more than the leafy green plant.

“We are pleased the SJC has recognized that this ballot question would usher in an entirely new marijuana edibles market and that voters must be informed of that fact,” Corey Welford, the campaign’s spokesman, said in a statement. “Under this proposal, the Marijuana Industry would be allowed to promote and sell these highly potent products, in the form of gummy bears and other candies, that are a particular risk for accidental use by kids.”

Meanwhile, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol celebrated the SJC decision as a win for voters who want to legalize marijuana and establish a regulatory and taxation structure for the substance.

“The court issued a victory for the voters of Massachusetts today, assuring that their voices will be heard on the issue of legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana, an approach that is working in Colorado and other states and will work in Massachusetts,” Borghesani said in a statement.

He also said the title change ordered by the court “accurately reflects the intent of our initiative.”

Borghesani said Wednesday the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol plans to make a “substantial media buy” of “well over” $1.5 million sometime after Labor Day to make voters aware of the initiative, what a legal marijuana industry might look like in Massachusetts and how other states have regulated cannabis.

The ballot initiative would impose a 3.75 percent state excise tax on retail marijuana sales, allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public, and establish a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee the new industry, among other provisions.

Marijuana advocates have had marked success taking marijuana reform efforts directly to the voters. Possession of less than an ounce of pot was decriminalized by voters in 2008 and four years later voters handily approved the medical use of marijuana. In both years, organized opposition to the ballot measures was almost non-existent.

If Massachusetts voters approve the legalization proposal, the law’s implementation date should be pushed back a year until 2019, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg said during a WCVB-TV interview last week. She called the January 2018 implementation date written into the marijuana ballot question “quite short.”

“I would think that we would need at least two years to get going,” said Goldberg. When “On the Record” co-host Janet Wu asked if that meant 2019, Goldberg said, “That’s basically what I’m saying.”

On Wednesday, Rosenberg said 2019 “sounds like that’s a very long time” but also predicted the Legislature would amend the ballot question in the 2017-2017 session if it becomes law because “some of the things that should be addressed are not addressed at all.”

“It has to be implemented properly and if it takes a little more time, we should make sure the time is given,” Rosenberg said during an interview on Boston Herald Radio. “I don’t know how the treasurer calculated to the point of ’19. That said, we know how much longer it took to implement the medical marijuana than people thought based on the deadlines they wrote in the bill. So I think we have to be a little flexible on that point.”

— Written by Colin A. Young and Michael Norton

Copyright State House News Service