From pot to slots, mix of issues raised in ballot questions

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The four questions on the Massachusetts state ballot this year address the legalization of marijuana, the opening of a slots parlor, an increase in the number of public charter schools, and current state law regarding the treatment of certain farm animals.

Question 4, which would legalize marijuana, is probably the one that has garnered the most public attention. Massachusetts is one of nine states that have a marijuana measure on the ballot. Eight other states are eyeing either legalizing recreational or medical marijuana—or otherwise loosening exiting regulations, according to the Associated Press. Those states are: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Maine, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota.

Effectively millions of voters could take the country in a giant leap forward in the legalization of pot in what the AP is calling a “national referendum.”

Marijuana already has some legal status in 25 states and the District of Columbia, according to Governing magazine. If all nine of the marijuana questions pass in November, that would make recreational pot accessible to 75 million U.S. residents, according to the AP. 

But several other issues of importance will also appear on the ballot in Massachusetts. Below is a brief breakdown of each question—what it will achieve, its current level of public support, and any relevant background information. (Note: These summaries are based upon news reports and publicly available information, including the formal voter’s guide produced by the Secretary of State’s office.)

Question 1: A New Slots Parlor in the State

 What it does: It allows the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue a license for a slots parlor with up to 1,250 slot machines. If approved, the question imposes a number of restrictions on where the slots parlor could be located. For example, it would have to be on a four-acre property and very close to a horse race track—no more than 1,500 away, to be precise. Those conditions are awfully specific and intentionally so. They are designed with one project in mind: a slot of land near Suffolk Downs where developer Eugene McCain wants to build a slots parlor, according to a report in WBUR.

 Level of support: The measure is currently opposed by the public, 57 percent to 30 percent, according to the latest Suffolk University poll released one week before the election.

Background: A 2011 state law established a state gaming commission, which was authorized to issue up to three licenses for new casinos—to be geographically dispersed in the state. The law also allowed up to one slots parlor. This question provides for one additional slots parlor.

Question 2: Increase the Number of Charter Schools

 What it does: Voting yes would boost the number of allowable charter schools by 12—as long as the increase is not greater than one percent of the total number of public school students across the state.

 Level of support: The public is evenly divided over the question, with 45.4 percent opposed and also in support. Nine percent are undecided, according to the latest Suffolk University poll. Governor Charlie Baker’s endorsement of the measure may have contributed to bring support for the question up from a 10 percent deficit, pollsters suggested in a news release.

 Background: Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate without many of the usual restrictions that apply to other public schools, thereby allowing for greater flexibility and freedom to innovate, according to their backers. Massachusetts saw its first charter schools open in the mid-1990s. Presently there are 78 charter schools in the state with a total enrollment of 43,648 students, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education. Click here for more data on charter schools. And here is a question-and-answer sheet with additional information.

Question 3: Treatment of Farm Animals

 What it does: The proposed law institutes a ban on keeping breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, or egg-laying hens from being kept in cages that are so small that they cannot freely move, such as lie down or stand up, according to the official state summary. The law would also prohibit the sale of the meat or eggs from animals that had been confined in such a way. Violations would carry a $1,000 fine. The state Attorney General would be charged with its enforcement.

 Level of support: The measure is enjoying a high level of public support, with 62 percent in favor and 25 percent opposed, according to the recent Suffolk University poll.

 Background: The question is being championed by a group known as Citizens for Farm Animals. The group says the current confinement practices constitute animal abuse and could lead to the spread of the Salmonella bacteria.

Question 4: Marijuana Legalization

 What it does: Voting yes would legalize marijuana. Residents 21 years and older would be permitted to possess and distribute small amounts of the drug. Sales of marijuana would be subject to the state sales tax. Its production and sale would also be subject to state regulation. Exiting laws on driving under the influence would be unchanged. It would still be illegal to sell the drug to those under 21 years old.

 Level of support: Public opinion is leaning in favor of passing the question, 49 percent to 42 percent, with 8 percent undecided, according to the latest Suffolk University poll. A number of public figures are opposed however, including Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. The Archdiocese of Boston has also come out against marijuana legalization.

 Background: In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but it was not until four years ago that states began to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (The first two states were Colorado and Washington.) Marijuana now enjoys legal status in about half the states. Measures that would expand its permissible use to some degree are on the ballot in nine states in this election.

Since 2008, the possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized. Medical marijuana became legal in 2012. Passage of this measure—which goes beyond decriminalization to granting full legal status to the drug, albeit in small amounts—would also set up a regulatory apparatus to monitor the commercial growth, distribution, and sale of the drug. A three-member Cannabis Control Commission would oversee the enforcement of the law. It also would have the specific responsibility for issuing licenses to commercial marijuana establishments.