Question 4 proposes – and I have long been open to – the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana.  But I will be voting “no” because, as written, it is seriously flawed.

Let’s be clear.  We are not talking about medical marijuana.  That is already legal in Massachusetts.  Question 4 addresses recreational drug use.

There is a right way and a wrong way to advance public policy on recreational marijuana and on balance Question 4 gets it wrong.  I do not come to this conclusion easily or without some misgivings, given that current law (and discriminatory enforcement of it) is far from ideal.

But the proposal before us contains 25 pages of detail courtesy of the proposal’s drafters, the business interests that stand to profit from the marketplace the law would create.  It would, among other things, seriously limit state and local governments’ ability to regulate, oversee, and tax.  For another, it comes to us without the benefit of reliable studies about marijuana and very early in the experiment with legalization that a few other states have undertaken. Largely because marijuana has been and continues to be illegal under federal law, the Food and Drug Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other regulatory and research agencies have undertaken no studies of marijuana’s safe limits or long-term effects.  As a result, there is no measure of strength or quantity that would allow us to guide or protect consumers in general, drivers in particular, as we do with alcohol.  There is also no way to protect children or pets from the many candy-like edible forms of marijuana.

But, more critically, the disconnect between federal policy on marijuana and the proposed Massachusetts law would have serious consequences.  Banks and insurers will not touch businesses that deal in marijuana because it continues to be against federal law.  In jurisdictions where marijuana growing and sale are legal, business is conducted in cash.  This invites open season on new black-market and under-the-counter practices.  In Colorado, for example, rather than replacing the black market with a legal market, legalization has created a new shadow cash economy while not eliminating black market sales.  You can buy legal, regulated and taxed marijuana or continue to rely on the underground market where the prices are lower.

I will continue to support steps to advance our understanding and pass a well-crafted bill.  But first I hope we dispose of this ill-conceived misstep.