This November, Massachusetts voters decided to make recreational marijuana legal, able be bought and sold in a store by January 2018. But this week, state lawmakers quietly voted to delay the sale date by at least six months.
The delay has some marijuana-legalization advocates outraged, less so because they’ll have to wait a few months to buy pot and more so because they feel the legislature is trying to subvert the will of the people by fundamentally changing what they voted for. A similar skirmish is happening in Maine over minimum wage, and both have progressives worried their opponents are trying to delay or even reverse their remarkable success via ballot initiatives.
“No legislature has inserted themselves in such a way as to extend timelines,” said Jim Borghesani, the director of communications for the Massachusetts campaign to legalize marijuana. “It’s direct democracy by the voters, whether you like it or not.”
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Massachusetts state lawmakers passed the bill in an informal session Wednesday with just a handful of lawmakers present. Lawmakers told the Boston Globe they wanted more time to set up the bureaucracy around the selling of marijuana. But legalization advocates note that Massachusetts’s timeline to legalize marijuana matches up with other states that allow it.
That the legislature is involved at all in setting up a timeline is especially frustrating advocates, since the whole point of ballot initiatives is to go around the legislative body. And in a nation dominated by Republican legislatures (Massachusetts’s is one of a handful controlled by Democrats), going around legislatures is something progressives have had a lot of success with in recent years.
Even though Republicans have a nearly 2-to-1 control of state legislatures, progressive ballot initiatives like legalizing marijuana, creating background checks for gun purchases and raising the minimum wage have often soared through when put to voters.
Marijuana will soon be legal in some form in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Most states only allow medicinal, not recreational, but eight states have now legalized the latter, and the number is growing quickly. But no legislature has approved legalization or decriminalization. (Vermont lawmakers tried this year.) Raising the minimum wage has had comparable success; when put to the voters, minimum wage increases have won all but twice over the past 20 years.
That includes Maine, where the victors of a November ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 also find themselves battling politicians.
Perennially controversial Republican Gov. Paul LePage has characterized ballot initiatives as “recommendations,” (they’re not) and his administration recently announced they wouldn’t enforce the state’s new minimum wage law (which passed by more than 10 points) for restaurant servers for at least the first month.
Even though it’s just a monthlong delay for now, progressive groups are particularly worried Maine could serve as a template for politicians to undermine ballot initiatives they don’t like. Justine Sarver, director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said in a statement LePage’s decision to delay the minimum wage increase is “egregious” and “despicable.”
Perhaps no recent ballot initiatives have been more successful than raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana. Marijuana had one of its best nights ever in November, when voters in eight of nine states voted to ease restrictions on it.
Which brings us back to Massachusetts, which will soon be one of eight states where it’s legal to smoke pot for any reason — except not on the timeline advocates thought.
All they can do now is hope Republican Gov. Charlie Baker doesn’t sign the bill or that state lawmakers don’t use the six-month delay to make more changes to the legalization roll-out, a fear of some advocates.
Outside of Massachusetts and Maine, progressives are also hoping legislatures don’t take a cue from these states and start tinkering with ballot initiatives after voters pass them.
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.