A Tale of Two Marijuana Ballot Committees

FILE -- In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo a caregiver picks out a marijuana bud for a patient at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. On Wednesday, May 7, 2014, Colorado lawmakers approved an uninsured coop banking scheme, another step to institutionalize the cash-only marijuana industry. But it won't happen overnight. The Federal Reserve must approve services like credit cards and checking; the state must regulate any coop; the industry and/or banking sector must come up with trustworthy institutions to deliver these services. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
Two separate groups are vying to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts.
Ed Andrieski/AP

Last month, the Marijuana Policy Project launched a referendum committee aimed at ultimately legalizing pot in Massachusetts. The opening of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts was seen as the first step in an effort to put the decision to voters through a ballot question in 2016.

Except it wasn’t the first step, just the biggest. MPP is a national group with major donor support, and was the force behind the ballot question in Colorado that legalized marijuana in that state. It’s well organized, well recognized, and well established.

But it wasn’t first. That distinction belongs to Bay State Repeal, a referendum committee that launched last fall. Bay State Repeal is comprised of Massachusetts residents, several of whom have been involved in previous initiatives to reform marijuana laws in the state. And in the face of the much larger MPP signaling its intentions to campaign in the state, Bay State Repeal is feeling a little bit of a squeeze.

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“Well, we feel shut out of our process,” says Bay State Repeal committee member Terry Franklin. “But that doesn’t mean shut out of the whole process. We are going to continue to move forward with an initiative of our own.”

Franklin likens MPP’s Massachusetts movement to big box stores encroaching on neighborhood retailers. He refers to MPP and its donor system as “oligarchs.”

But, he notes, there’s one big difference from the retail comparison. Unlike your local bookstore trying to stand up to Barnes & Noble, Bay State Repeal isn’t fighting MPP for customers or even brand recognition. It’s not so much a matter of competition.

“We don’t care who gets credit for what,” Franklin says. Instead, he says, Bay State Repeal wants the opportunity to collaborate.

Ballot initiatives often involve larger groups forming coalitions with local groups and stakeholders. But Franklin says Bay State Repeal’s efforts to reach out to MPP often receive no response. And when there is one, he says, it’s usually in the form of a short answer directing the committee to the larger organization’s website.

A possible 2016 ballot initiative wouldn’t be MPP’s first action in the state. It was also the driving force behind the 2008 ballot question that decriminalized marijuana use here.

MPP, for its part, says it hasn’t yet worked with local activists on the issue because the ballot initiative is in a nascent stage. “We’re very interested in a collaborative process with all relevant parties in the state,” Matt Simon, the MPP’s New England political director, says.

Another member of Bay State Repeal, Steven Epstein, was active with Massachusetts pot reform groups in the lead-up to the 2008 vote. He says MPP worked with local activists then, and he was asked to write some polling questions as the group surveyed Massachusetts voters. However, he felt the group didn’t consider local viewpoints as closely as he would have liked.

“They picked our brains,” he says. “But not for the drafting of the statute.”

That factor matters to the committee. Franklin and Epstein stressed that they don’t care whether they get their name attached to the effort to legalize, so much as they’d like their viewpoint to be considered as any potential law is written. Bay State Repeal, they say, has a particular view of what a legalization law should ultimately look like. For example, they think taxes on marijuana should be lower than alcohol taxes. And they want to stress marijuana as an agricultural product, with little limitation on individuals’ ability to grow the plant for themselves.

“We want the least restrictive law that is still able to pass,” Franklin says.

Neither group has written a proposed Massachusetts statute yet. Simon, at MPP, says the organization’s ballot initiative hasn’t even begun and that the committee was set up simply to allow it to begin taking donations.

Simon could not offer specifics about how the group would work with already-operational activists at this stage. MPP Executive Director Rob Kampia visited the state to talk with stakeholders this past spring. Bay State Repeal was not invited to that meeting, Franklin says, but representatives from the committee heard about it in advance and “weren’t turned away” when they arrived.

Both Franklin and Epstein acknowledge that the much larger MPP will likely be the driving force behind any 2016 ballot initiative. Though it is set up to accept donations, Bay State Repeal has yet to even launch its website several months after opening the referendum committee. The committee has only taken in about 15 small donations so far, Franklin says. (Referendum committees have not yet reported their donations in 2014.)

But though Bay State Repeal hopes MPP’s initiative comes with a seat at the table for its committee, the activists see the benefit in having the much larger group bringing its efforts to Massachusetts.

“Anything they get is going to be better than what we have right now,” Franklin says.