Representatives of both sides clashed in a debate over Massachusetts marijuana legalization as the state’s four Roman Catholic bishops and a Massachusetts physicians group announced their opposition. Pictured: Jars of marijuana sit on a counter during a sale at the Denver Kush Club pot shop in north Denver. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press file)

Supporters, critics of Massachusetts marijuana question offer dueling arguments

'What this is really about is commercializing big marijuana in Massachusetts': Roman Catholic bishops, physician group opposed to marijuana legalization

BOSTON, Ma. — Supporters and critics of a ballot question that would legalize Massachusetts marijuana for recreational use offered competing arguments for and against the measure on Tuesday.

Representatives of both sides clashed in a debate as the state’s four Roman Catholic bishops and a Massachusetts physicians group announced their opposition to the initiative.

Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which supports Question 4, said the measure will help end criminal activity by allowing adults to legally possess and purchase marijuana.

“Prohibition has failed to keep marijuana out of our community. It has failed to keep marijuana out of the hands of our young people. And it has cost law enforcement and society millions and millions of dollars to enforce,” Borghesani said. “We need to end prohibition and replace it with a taxed and regulated system and finally control marijuana in Massachusetts.”

State Sen. Jason Lewis, who represents opponents of legalizing pot, said the question is tailored to benefit the marijuana industry.

“What this is really about is commercializing big marijuana in Massachusetts. This ballot question is written by and for the marijuana industry and unfortunately it puts their profits ahead of the health and safety of our children and our communities,” said Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Public Health Committee.

Borghesani defended the question, saying it gives state regulators wide leeway.

The measure, if approved by voters, would create a three-member Cannabis Control Commission appointed by the state treasurer to administer the new law and adopt new regulations. The question also would create a 15-member Cannabis Advisory Board appointed by the governor.

Tuesday’s debate at the University of Massachusetts’ McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies — sponsored by WBUR-FM and The Boston Globe — came as more critics lined up against the measure.

The four Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said in a joint statement that they were concerned about the health effect of marijuana.

“Legalizing a drug for recreational use that causes these effects on the human body, particularly our youth, is not a path civil society should choose to take,” the bishops wrote, adding that legalizing marijuana could draw attention from the state’s battle against a deadly opioid epidemic.

The Massachusetts Medical Society also declared its opposition. The group represents more than 25,000 doctors.

They join Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey and Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh who have also urged voters to reject the question. They say legalizing pot could be a gateway to harder drugs, including opioids.

The November ballot question would let those 21 years old or older possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use and allow the home cultivation of up to 12 marijuana plants.

It would also impose a 3.75 percent excise tax on pot sales — on top of the state’s regular 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities and town would be able to tack on an additional 2 percent municipal tax.

The proposal would let employers bar the use of marijuana by employees in the workplace. Officials could continue to restrict marijuana use in public buildings and near schools.

If approved, the law would take effect Dec. 15.