The ruling came hours before Massachusetts marijuana supporters planned to turn in the necessary voter signatures for the November ballot. Pictured: General Manager Ryan Cook is checking their product at The Clinic Medical and Recreational Marijuana Center in Denver, Colorado. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Massachusetts’ top court OKs marijuana legalization for ballot, but tweak needed

BOSTON — Massachusetts’ highest court on Wednesday cleared the way for a November ballot question on legalizing small amounts of recreational marijuana, but it ordered changes in the wording of the question’s title and the brief statement that explains the measure to voters.

The justices, in a unanimous opinion, said the current title and statement were “clearly misleading,” though otherwise found no reason to disqualify the proposal from the ballot.

The ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court came hours before supporters of legalized pot turned in more than 25,000 additional certified voter signatures to the secretary of state, well above the 10,792 needed to assure a spot on the ballot.

The court heard two lawsuits last month, one of which argued that tens of thousands of people who signed petitions supporting legalization were misled because they were not told on the petitions that the proposed law could allow the sale of food products such as cookies or candy with high concentrations of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The court said it was disappointed that Attorney General Maura Healey did not prepare a summary for the petitions that included a reference to marijuana-infused food products that could become available in Massachusetts. But it ruled that the summary was nonetheless fair, and rejected other arguments that the question was unconstitutional as framed.

Healey, who personally opposes legalization, ruled last year that the initiative petition passed constitutional muster.

The measure would allow people 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of pot for recreational use and impose a 3.75 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales, on top of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. A state cannabis commission would be created to regulate the drug.

The chief sponsors of the ballot question, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, welcomed the court’s ruling.

“Massachusetts voters will have their voices heard in November,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the group. “Our initiative, we think, puts forth a very commonsense alternative to the failed prohibition system that exists today.”

The justices agreed with the plaintiffs that the current title of the question and the so-called ‘yes or no’ statement that provides voters with brief arguments for and against the measure were flawed, and took the unusual step of drafting new language for both.

Ruling it would be “unfair and clearly misleading” to call the measure simply “Marijuana Legalization,” the SJC ordered the title changed to “Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana.”

Several changes were ordered in the wording of the “yes” statement, the most significant of which the court said would make clear to voters that the proposed law would not only legalize small amounts of marijuana but products — including food — that contain marijuana concentrate.

A group spearheading opposition to the marijuana question and led by top state leaders including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh praised the court for drawing attention to food products that could be marketed toward children.

“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,” said Corey Welford, spokesman for the Campaign For a Safe & Healthy Massachusetts. The group was not a party to the lawsuits heard by the court.

The SJC on Wednesday also rejected a legal challenge brought against another likely November ballot question, one that would outlaw overly-restrictive cages for farm animals, and prohibit the sale in Massachusetts of eggs and other food products that come from out-of-state farms that confine animals in such a way.