December 18, 2016

On Beacon Hill: A Green Christmas for legal marijuana advocates

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Andy Metzger / State House News Service

Ellen Brown of Marstons Mills and the Northeast Cannabis Institute holds about $50 worth of legal "blue dream" marijuana in front of the State House Dec. 15.

From State House News Service

ON THE AGENDA

  • Legal marijuana rolls up to State House
  • Baker eyes deeper partnership after Israel trip
  • Healey wants answers from Tillerson
  • 900 buyouts spare state employee layoffs

TOP OF THE HILL

For legal marijuana advocates, it’s a Green Christmas

BOSTON — A decade ago, a Massachusetts State Police cruiser, lights on, pulling up onto the sidewalk at a cannabis celebration might have been cause for alarm among attendees.

Last Thursday, the first day of marijuana legalization under a ballot law, the brief presence of a police vehicle — which was turning around to head down Beacon Street — didn’t cause a stir among activists showing off their green product for the news media outside the State House.

Scituate resident Keith Saunders, a member of the board of directors of the pro-marijuana-legalization NORML, held out a jar that he said contained just under an ounce of marijuana that was grown and gifted to him by a patient. Saunders told reporters he was giving people marijuana from his jar as they asked for it.

The ballot law permits people 21 and over to carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public and gift up to an ounce. It allows individuals to grow up to six plants, limiting it to 12 per household, and to possess up to 10 ounces of cannabis at home. A regulatory regime for retail sale of the drug is not yet established, and unregulated sales remain illegal. But the legal flow of marijuana has begun.

Keith Saunders holds a jar of what he said was nearly an ounce of newly legalized marijuana outside the State House Dec. 15.

Andy Metzger / State House News Service

Keith Saunders holds a jar of what he said was nearly an ounce of newly legalized marijuana outside the State House Dec. 15.

For Saunders, holding what he said was about a two-month supply of pot on a Beacon Hill sidewalk felt natural.

“It means that we have common sense in our drug policies, because there’s no reason that I couldn’t stand here with a beer or with a pack of cigarettes or with a Coca-Cola, or with prescription medicine I would be allowed to have,” Saunders said. “It’s a change. It’s some semblance of sanity and common sense. Prohibiting a plant has never made any sense to begin with.”

Marijuana legalization was opposed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, among others who expressed concern about sanctioning the intoxicant. Opponents of legalization cited negative impacts associated with stoned driving, an influx of advertising steering people toward pot usage, a rise in health problems and the possibility that teen marijuana usage will increase.

[article continues after video]


VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Governor’s Council debates Question 4 in ballot certification hearing

Republican Jen Caissie of Oxford was the only Governor’s Council member to not vote to certify the results of Question 4.


Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who was among the 1.7 million voters who voted in favor of the ballot question, disclosed this week that he thinks lawmakers should consider raising the age when people can legally possess the substance from 21 to 25.

Dating back to 2008, when a statewide referendum decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, pro-pot advocates have used the ballot to advance more permissive policies toward cannabis. Members of the state Legislature have largely sat on the sidelines during the state’s multi-year marijuana policy debate. Now, top lawmakers say they want to get involved in amending the voter law, which critics say was written by and for the marijuana industry.

Until Maine’s ballot law takes effect, Massachusetts is the only state on the East Coast with legalized marijuana. Washington, D.C., voters passed a measure to legalize possession, cultivation and gifting among adults. Legalization laws have passed across the entire West Coast, including Alaska and Nevada.

“What we did on a state-by-state basis is really bring it to the people, bring it to the grassroots,” Saunders said. “Massachusetts, very importantly, has the six-plant cultivation per adult, which allows for the creation of a supply that doesn’t depend upon a legalized market. People will be able to cultivate and share what they cultivate.”

Saunders said he put six marijuana seeds in soil Wednesday night.

While gearing up a legalized market regulated by the Cannabis Control Commission will take some time, the roughly two-dozen people celebrating legalization in the cold on the State House steps Thursday took advantage of legalized gifting.

“We’re able to hand out cannabis to each other. We’re able to hand out concentrates and seeds to one another and we’re doing it peacefully,” said Ellen Brown of Marstons Mills, a village within the town of Barnstable. “We’re asking, ‘Are you 21?’ We’re not giving out to children. It’s not crazy or willy-nilly.”

Brown is an educator at the Northeast Institute of Cannabis.

Cupped in her hand and emitting a potent smell, Brown held what she said was about an eighth of an ounce of “blue dream” marijuana that she estimated was worth about $50 and said had been given to her.

— Andy Metzger


IN THE NEWS

Baker impressed by Israeli tech capabilities, eyes growing partnership

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker returned to Massachusetts on a red-eye flight from Israel on Thursday, completing his first international trade mission during which he sought to strengthen economic ties in the digital health and cybersecurity fields.

Deeming the weeklong trip a success after signing several partnership agreements and getting face time with “thought leaders” in both arenas, Baker said, “It’s very clear if you spend some time there that they have a really frothy, really enthusiastic, really engaged technology and healthcare community. And in cyber in particular, they have one of the deepest benches anywhere in the world, and they punch way out of their weight class on that one.”

Gov. Charlie Baker

State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

He added, “I think the opportunity for our team to benefit tremendously from the relationships that were developed as a part of this and to incorporate that into some of our strategic activities going forward is quite real.”

Baker’s delegation included WPI President Laurie Leshin and Michael Ginzberg, Dean of WPI’s Robert A. Foisie School of Business.

Baker’s predecessor, Gov. Deval Patrick, took part in multiple trade missions during his time in office, visiting at least three other continents to promote Massachusetts. As a candidate, Baker said he didn’t foresee becoming a frequent international flyer, and that hasn’t changed.

“I don’t have any plans to pursue anything else. This one was important to me primarily because of the connection to the digital health piece and the cyber piece,” he said.

Having met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu and business leaders in Israel, Baker said the “general consensus over there was wait-and-see” with regard to the incoming Trump administration.

“Trade is really important to these folks and I think they all anticipate that that will continue to be a major part of their relationship with the United States and Massachusetts going forward. The type of trade that we’re involved in with them is different than I think the trade that the incoming Trump administration has talked a lot about,” Baker said.

While Trump sharply criticized, in many respects, the free flow of goods around the world and its impact on American jobs, Baker said the Israeli-Massachusetts partnership is predicated more on “knowledge transfer.”

“Our goal, frankly, is to try to make Massachusetts the home away from home for a lot of the folks who are thought leaders in the digital health and cyberspace in Israel, but I certainly expect there will be people here who make Israel their home away from home and I’m OK with that too,” he said.

— Matt Murphy


Healey wants answers from Trump Cabinet pick Tillerson on Exxon lawsuit

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s investigation into ExxonMobil Corp. could pop up as the company’s leader tries to win confirmation to a Cabinet post, Healey suggested late last week.

President-elect Donald Trump announced Exxon Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson as his pick for secretary of state.

Maura Healey

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Maura Healey

“I say to Rex Tillerson and I say to Exxon, nobody’s above the law. Answer our questions,” Healey told CNN’s Carol Costello in a televised interview on Friday. “Whether that happens now in a confirmation hearing or whether it happens by them simply doing what they should be doing and answering our questions, providing us with the documents, I hope they come forward. I hope they come clean on this.”

Exxon is suing Healey in both Suffolk Superior Court and a Texas federal court over her probe into whether the company misrepresented the impacts of its products on the environment. Healey described the suit as an effort “to shut down and cut off questions from being asked.”

A Democrat who campaigned for Hillary Clinton, Healey has been sharply critical of Trump and the appointments he has announced so far.

“The people he has nominated to head any number of the various departments are people who have spent much of their careers trying to dismantle the very departments that they’re now slated to head,” Healey said Friday.

— Katie Lannan


900 buyouts save $12 million, stave off government layoffs

The Baker administration will not seek government layoffs to address a persistent budget gap after 900 employees took a buyout offer resulting in $12 million in payroll savings this fiscal year and a projected $70 million in fiscal 2018.

The results of the buyout program, which was offered by Baker from mid-October through mid-November in an attempt to save $25 million, were released Wednesday, a week after the governor used his executive authority to cut $98 million from the state budget.

Massachusetts State House

Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House

Open to 42,000 executive-branch employees with the exception of those who work for the Department of Children and Families, 729 employees took the $15,000 cash incentive to retire and an additional 171 workers took a one-time $5,000 payout to leave government service.

The average salary of those leaving state government was $68,069, according to the administration, and 100 employees earned more than $100,000 a year in their positions.

“This is the highest participation in a voluntary separation program in recent history. Based on the results, the Executive Branch will not seek across-the-board layoffs, but agencies will work to identify potential operational improvements, which could include agency-level incentive programs, attrition, staff adjustments, or other savings in the normal course of business,” Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore said in a statement.

Baker’s budget office launched the employee buyout program in October after Lepore announced that she was revising revenue estimates to reflect $175 million less in anticipated sales taxes and projected a $294 million budget hole.

The departures generated a gross savings of $35.1 million, but the state paid out $11.6 million in buyouts to incentivize the turnover and another $11.6 million in accrued benefits, including $7 million for earned vacation and comp time and $4.6 million in sick time for retirees.

Six percent of retiree-eligible employees opted to take the buyout this fall, while less than 1 percent of other employees took advantage. The non-retirees that accepted the buyout earned, on average, $12,000 a year less than the retirees at $58,388.

— Matt Murphy

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