Marijuana law splits candidates in state Senate special election along party lines

By Jim Hand

There is a clear partisan divide among candidates for state Senate over the state’s new recreational marijuana law.

Republican candidates in a special election to replace Sen. James Timilty say they would have voted against it. Democrats and independents say they support it.

The bill passed the Legislature earlier this month and made some changes to a referendum passed by voters last November regarding the retail sale of marijuana.

Possession of small amounts of marijuana and growing at home — but not selling it — has been legal since January.

The Legislature had delayed retail sales until it could pass a bill setting up a way of regulating it.

A conference committee developed a bill that compromised between Senate and House provisions.

Two of its most noteworthy provisions were the setting of a maximum tax of 20 percent on sales and creating a means of allowing towns to outlaw pot shops within their borders.

Towns that voted against the referendum last November can ban sales by a vote of the board of selectmen. Towns that favored the measure would need another referendum on a ban.

Republican Tim Hempton of Walpole said the dual system for banning sales is one of the reasons he would have voted against the bill if he were in the Senate.

He said he agrees with Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr, who opposed it. Hempton said the system creates two classes of communities.

Hempton, who campaigned against legalized marijuana in a Walpole referendum, said he is also concerned about allowing young people with still-developing brains to use marijuana and believes it could be a gateway to harder drugs.

Michael Berry, another Walpole Republican, said he has a number of public safety concerns about the bill.

For instance, wider use of marijuana is going to result in more people driving while high, but there is no test for police to determine if a motorist is intoxicated with marijuana, he said.

Another concern, he said, is the bill will set up another expensive state bureaucracy to regulate marijuana.

Republican Jacob Ventura issued a statement on the issue.

“The conference committee bill increases taxes, is perhaps unconstitutional, and is yet another demonstration of the Legislature ignoring the will of the people through the ballot initiative process,” his statement said.

“This bill is bad for economic development and it creates regulatory oversight that I fear, without sound management, will expand and spend even more of our hard-earned tax dollars.”

On the Democratic side, Paul Feeney of Foxboro said he supported the law in the November election and would have voted for the compromise bill in the Legislature.

“I think its best to pay attention to the will of the voters,” he said. “I would have voted in favor.”

He said he was originally concerned the Legislature would “go astray” and make too many changes and increase taxes too much from what voters approved, but the bill was a good compromise.

The other Democrat in the race, Ted Philips of Sharon, also said he would have voted for the bill.

He said he believes it largely reflects the will of the supporters of the ballot question on legalization.

As for the taxes, Philips said 20 percent is on par with other states and is reasonable.

One objection, he said, is he wished there was only one way of banning pot shops rather than have different towns with different systems.

As far as the independent candidates go, Joe Shortsleeve of Medfield said he is not bothered by the 20 percent tax the Legislature would allow. The referendum called for a 12 percent tax, but the House wanted 28 percent.

He also said the House and Senate had to reach an agreement to regulate marijuana so striking a compromise was a positive development.

“That’s a good thing in today’s day and age,” he said, although he said he would prefer that all towns would be required to pass a referendum in order to ban sales.

Another independent, Janet Kennedy of Foxboro, said marijuana is a “touchy subject.”

She said she supports medical marijuana but has doubts about allowing recreational use.

“As long as everyone follows the rules” she said, she can support it.

Kennedy said she did not want to comment on what changes she would have liked to see in the bill.

A special primary election will be held Sept. 19 with the general election Oct. 17.

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