by Shira Schoenberg
The Springfield Republican/MassLive.com
A group of politicians and academics — including former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — are piloting a program to have a committee of citizens analyze the ballot question on legalizing marijuana and draft a statement of its pros and cons to be distributed to voters.
"This is going to be a great thing for people just to get educated about this ballot referendum," said Dukakis, a Democrat and a board member of the initiative. "There's a lot of confusion out there. People really don't understand this well."
The pilot program is similar to one in place in Oregon that has also been tested in Colorado and Arizona. The goal is to better educate citizens by providing them with independent, objective information about a ballot question.
"The problem we're trying to address is confusion among voters about ballot questions," said State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, D-Watertown, who spearheaded the initiative. "They deal with complicated issues, a lot of different policy dimensions, and what we're hearing anecdotally on the street and from constituents is that voters are confused."
An advisory committee for the Citizens' Initiative Review project, which includes Democrats and Republicans representing politics and academia, met Tuesday to choose which ballot question to study and to select the members of the citizens' advisory panel. The nine-member board unanimously chose the question that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana.
"There's a particular interest in the state regarding the marijuana issue," said board member Phil Johnston, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party who now chairs the UMass Building Authority.
Though Johnston personally opposes marijuana legalization, he said, "I don't think we should be biased in presenting the information. We need to make sure both sides are presented to the public fairly and neutrally."
Hecht said the marijuana question was chosen because it is complicated and touches on a range of issues, including law enforcement, public health, youth and taxation.
The other three questions on the ballot will be about expanding charter schools, allowing a second slots parlor and prohibiting the sale of eggs or meat from confined farm animals.
Choosing the panel
The organizers sent letters to 10,000 Massachusetts residents asking for participants. They selected the advisory committee from the respondents using an algorithm that takes into account age, geography, political party affiliation, race, gender and educational attainment.
The goal is to have a panel that represents Massachusetts' voting age population.
There will be 20 panelists and four alternates. The panel will have seven Democrats, two Republicans, and 11 members who are unenrolled. Half the members will have a high school education equivalent or less, while half will have at least an associate's degree.
They will be paid $400 each, and those from outside Boston will be given accommodations during the four days of deliberations on Aug. 25-28.
During deliberations, which will be open to the public, the group will be presented with information about the marijuana question from supporters and opponents of the ballot question and from outside experts. They will produce a citizens' statement, which will include a statement of fact and a summary of the arguments for and against legalization. The statement will be distributed via the media, social media and through mailing lists.
Outside experts will evaluate whether the program is successful.
The marijuana question has sparked significant debate. National groups are funding the effort to legalize marijuana, and Massachusetts voters already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and allowed medical marijuana.
The opposition includes a bipartisan group of some of Massachusetts' most powerful politicians, including Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.
Dukakis, asked for his views on the marijuana legalization, said he is "thinking about it seriously."
"Prohibition doesn't work that well," Dukakis said. But, he said, "It's an addicting drug. ... I don't think what we're seeing in Colorado is encouraging."
The project is a partnership between Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Healthy Democracy, which started the Oregon program.