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The Difference Between Massachusetts and Colorado

Dec 29, 2016 12:56PM ● By Leland Rucker

Massachusetts lawmakers this week delayed the opening of legal marijuana stores by six months, until the middle of 2018. Only seven legislators showed up, which means that a fraction of the state’s representatives overturned voters’ wishes in less than an hour. It still needs the signature of Gov. Charlie Baker to go into effect.

Colorado passed Amendment 64 in fall of 2012 that legalized recreational use of cannabis and approved businesses where it could be purchased under state supervision, much like Massachusetts. So why didn’t state legislators, who opposed the amendment in large numbers, pull the same stunt here?

I asked Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project and a co-author of the initiative here. “Amendment 64 in Colorado was a constitutional amendment,” he explained. “So the legislature could not alter the timeline in it without amending the constitution.”

That wasn’t the case in Massachusetts. Question 4 in Massachusetts was a statutory initiative, which allows the legislature to alter it,” Tvert says. Nor was it particularly startling news in the state. Legislators had already been warning that the timeline might be slowed and even talked about pushing the date for adoption back.

So the legislators were sneaky and acting against the wishes of the electorate and pushing their anti-cannabis agenda. But they were also acting within the limits of the legislation itself.

Many news reports also mention a “legal gray area” since the law dictated that people can possess cannabis legally but now they can’t buy it except from the black market the law was designed to stop.

But from December 2012, when Gov. Hickenlooper signed Amendment 64 and legalized it for adults, Colorado was in the same situation for more than a year until rules were written and stores opened in January 2014. The gray area lasted even longer in Washington, where recreational sales didn’t start until July 2014, 19 months after passage. There were no particular problems reported in either state because of the “gray area.”

But take a moment at the New Year to be thankful that Amendment 64 is part of the constitution of our state, and that it was passed before Amendment 71 this year, which makes citizen initiatives much harder to pass from now on.