BOSTON – “Nonsense.” “Sinister.” “Disingenuous.”
Those were some of the words tossed around this week as a supporter and an opponent of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts through a November ballot question faced off against each other at a Boston University School of Public Health seminar on the topic.
As Nov. 8 approaches, the question already promises to be one of the marquee battles on a ballot that will feature the 2016 presidential race and a separate ballot question on whether to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.
At the seminar, the “Yes” camp’s Jim Borghesani sparred with the “No” side’s Jason Lewis, a state senator, over how much of a role the recreational and medical marijuana industries are playing in the race. And afterwards, each acknowledged they’ll be closely looking at how much money the other side has raised so far.
Supporters say the ballot question will set up a stringent, legal system that will drive down the black market, while opponents argue the black market will stay alive as a “profit-driven commercial marijuana industry moves in.
The first campaign finance reports from the groups for and against the state ballot questions are due today.
“We don’t expect to ever have as much money as the other side because the industry has far deeper pockets than we’re going to have, so we don’t expect to match them dollar for dollar,” Lewis said after the Boston University forum.
But Borghesani said the industry hasn’t been big contributor to the campaign for the ballot question, which would set up a Cannabis Control Commission to regulate and tax marijuana after the substance would become legal for adults 21 years and older.
At the end of August, former US Rep. Barney Frank was scheduled to headline a fundraiser for the “Yes on 4” effort at the Harvard Club in Boston.
But the fundraiser, geared towards members of the marijuana industry, including on the medical and venture capital sides, was cancelled “due to extremely low ticket sales,” according to one of the web pages that initially promoted the event. The fundraiser hasn’t been rescheduled.
“That was aimed toward industry, the medical industry, and we just didn’t have enough response to make the fundraiser work. So it completely contradicts the message from our opponents that somehow the industry is running this whole thing,” Borghesani told MassLive.com.
He added that pharmaceutical companies appear to be aiding organizations against marijuana legalization in other states.
“We’re interested in seeing have pharma companies have contributed to them, because we saw in Arizona today a pharmaceutical company contributed $500,000 to the opposition campaign in Arizona,” he said, referring to the company Insys, which sells a painkiller with fentanyl.
Lewis, who is on the steering committee for the “No on 4” side, said he hasn’t seen the full list of their donors.
“Whoever wants to be involved in this campaign is, I think, free to be involved. I think the vast majority of our funding, I’m pretty confident, is going to come from organizations and individuals who care about public health, who care about public safety, who work in the addiction community, or the health care community, or law enforcement or business groups that are concerned about the impact on their employees,” he said.
Lewis continued: “And conversely on the other side their money is going to be largely coming from marijuana industry interests.”
When asked about the cancelled fundraiser with Frank, Lewis said, “Maybe some of their donors are having second thoughts about whether it’s a good investment to put it in Massachusetts or maybe they should go focus elsewhere. But we’re not taking anything for granted.”
Massachusetts voters decriminalized small amounts of marijuana – the equivalent of roughly several dozen joints – in 2008 and legalized marijuana for medical use in 2012.
“I think they may have thought that, you know, it might be a cakewalk like in 2008 or 2012 because there wasn’t really much organized opposition,” Lewis said.
This time around, a bipartisan coalition of opponents includes popular elected officials like Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
The coalition also includes hospitals, doctors, business groups and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Lewis said.
But Borghesani said his group will be rolling out more endorsements, aside from several municipal officials they announced last month, like Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, in the near future.
“I think you’re going to see from us a fact-based campaign about why we think a regulatory system would work in Massachusetts,” he said.
“We’re going to see from our opponents a fear-based campaign about why people should be afraid of marijuana in Massachusetts, but avoiding the simple truth that there already is a thriving marijuana industry in Massachusetts,” Borghesani added, referring to the existing black market.
Here are your four ballot questions for Nov. 2016