JUNE 29, 2017 – GEORGETOWN – When Massachusetts voters went to the polls and legalized recreational marijuana last November, attorney and longtime cannabis legalization advocate Steven Epstein voted with the minority.
“I did not want to see – because I’ve lived here a long time – the creation of a bureaucracy with lots of good jobs at good wages for people who are ‘nieces and nephews’ of politicians,” explained Epstein, who has been similarly skeptical about legislation to implement legalization, particularly the version by the Massachusetts House passed earlier this month.
“There are some pearls in it, amongst the chum,” he said, a reference to fish scraps and refuse thrown into the ocean as bait. As Epstein said, “It attracts sharks.”
Legal recreational marijuana continued its journey from voter approval to a bong near you last week (June 21-22) with approval of two versions of legislation to implement the law by the state House and Senate. The next stop for the two versions will be a conference committee, which is expected to revise the bill and send it to the governor for final approval. Legislative leaders set a deadline of June 30 to get legislation onto the desk of Governor Charlie Baker.
The two versions differ in significant ways. In one notable example, the House legislation taxes marijuana at 28 percent compared to the Senate’s 12 percent.
Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-8th District), said there’s thoughtful consideration going into the implementation of the new law.
“The legislative process is deliberative, back-and-forth, and there are lots of minds considering the details, and the agencies involved,” said Ehrlich, who previously co-sponsored a bill for marijuana legalization and voted for the House bill as well.
“Sometimes when ballot initiatives are written, some things may not be considered. The House bill took up some of these issues, that I was very supportive of.”
For example, the House bill treats hemp as an agricultural product that can be cultivated, possessed, processed, and bought or sold, rather than being a controlled substance. This lowers the burden for farmers, said Ehrlich, who noted that the House bill also “carved out a space for craft growers,” to prevent the business from being dominated by large corporations. There is also money set aside for substance abuse prevention and to set safety standards.
“The eventual law on this issue is far from settled,” Ehrlich added, predicting that a legislative conference committee would find middle ground in the areas of tax rate, governance structure and licensing requirements.
“This is landmark legislation for Massachusetts,” said Ehrlich, one of several Jewish state representatives. “This is new ground, and the ballot initiative gave us a clear indication as a state that we’re ready for this, but I also think the legislative process can enhance what the voters have told us.”
Epstein, the father of three and husband of licensed substance abuse counselor Jane Finkelstein, would like to see stricter, more realistic and effective evaluation and treatment (by a licensed counselor) of underage users. He’d also like to see lower taxes when the bill becomes law.
The Georgetown resident was a founder in 1990 and for many years the lead spokesperson for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), a non-profit public education organization working for moderation of marijuana laws in the state.
His advocacy stemmed from the belief that prohibition is bad policy and that law was unjust, Epstein said.
“Adult individuals have the right to choose what they put in their bodies,” he said.
Epstein said that his Jewish upbringing played a large role in his quest, and the drive for social justice.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Liberty is a social justice issue. And the fact of the matter is, the racial discrimination that is part of enforcing these laws is reprehensible.”
There is historical precedent for recreational marijuana use, including in the Jewish faith.
Rabbi Yosef Glassman, a Massachusetts medical doctor who has researched marijuana, notes that there are references to cannabis in both the Bible and the Torah. That is proof that Jews have used it for several purposes, and not only for medical purposes.
“Perhaps it is no surprise that the green herb native to the Sinai has been used throughout the ages by physicians to treat respiratory ailments, as the Rambam describes in his medical writings; indeed, cannabinoids are potent bronchodilators,” noted Glassman, in an essay earlier this year published on the Orthodox Union’s website. “Additionally, recent archeological remains found near Beit Shemesh show that cannabis resin was used as anesthesia during childbirth. More recently, the OU has certified certain medical cannabis foods for oral consumption, and Tikkun Olam, an Israel-based Torah-minded cannabis grower, is producing chewing gum for children with intractable seizures, amongst others.”
Wrote Glassman, “The bottom line is: not only does the Shulchan Aruch mention cannabis as finer choice for a Shabbos candle wick, but indeed the Torah may consider it a healing pillar of smoke.”