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Why a skirmish over pot legalization in Massachusetts is making some progressives paranoid

Glass containers display varieties of marijuana for sale in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In November, Massachusetts voters decided to make recreational marijuana legal, allowing it to be bought and sold in stores by January 2018. But this week, state lawmakers quietly voted to delay the sale date by at least six months.

The delay has outraged some marijuana-legalization advocates, less so because they'll have to wait a few months to buy pot and more so because they feel the legislature is trying to subvert the will of the people by fundamentally changing what they voted for. A similar skirmish is happening in Maine over the minimum wage, and progressives in both states are worried that their opponents are trying to delay or even reverse their remarkable success via ballot initiatives.

"No legislature has inserted themselves in such a way as to extend timelines," said Jim Borghesani, director of communications for the Massachusetts campaign to legalize marijuana. "It's direct democracy by the voters, whether you like it or not."

Massachusetts state lawmakers passed the bill in an informal session Wednesday with just a handful of lawmakers present. Lawmakers told the Boston Globe they wanted more time to set up the bureaucracy around the selling of marijuana. But legalization advocates note that Massachusetts's timeline to legalize marijuana sales matches up with other states that allow it.

That the legislature is involved at all in this is especially frustrating to advocates, since the whole point of ballot initiatives is to go around the legislative body. And in a nation dominated by Republican legislatures (Massachusetts's is one of a handful controlled by Democrats), going around legislatures is something progressives have had a lot of success with in recent years.

Even though Republicans have nearly 2-to-1 control of state legislatures, progressive ballot initiatives such as legalizing marijuana, creating background checks for gun purchases and raising the minimum wage have often sailed through when put to voters.

Marijuana will soon be legal in some form in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Most states only allow medicinal, not recreational, use, but eight states have now legalized the latter, and the number is growing quickly. No state legislature has approved legalization. (Though Vermont lawmakers tried this year, and several legislatures have decriminalized marijuana.)

Raising the minimum wage has had comparable success; when put to the voters, minimum wage increases have won every time but twice over the past 20 years.

That includes Maine, where the victors of a November ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 also find themselves battling politicians.

Perennially controversial Gov. Paul LePage (R) has characterized ballot initiatives as "recommendations" (they're not), and his administration recently announced that it wouldn't enforce the state's new minimum wage law (which passed by more than 10 points) for restaurant servers for at least the first month.

Even though it's just a month-long delay for now, progressive groups are particularly worried that Maine could serve as a template for politicians to undermine ballot initiatives they don't like. Justine Sarver, director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said in a statement that LePage's decision to delay the minimum wage increase is "egregious" and "despicable."

Perhaps no recent ballot initiatives have been more successful than raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana. Marijuana had one of its best nights ever in November, when voters in eight of nine states voted to ease restrictions on it.

Which brings us back to Massachusetts, which will soon be one of eight states where it's legal to smoke and/or buy and sell pot for any reason — except not on the timeline advocates thought.

Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed the bill Friday. And all they can do now is hope that state lawmakers don't use the six-month delay to make more changes to the legalization rollout, a fear of some advocates.

Outside Massachusetts and Maine, progressives also hope legislatures don't take a cue from these states and start tinkering with ballot initiatives after voters pass them.

This article has been corrected to clarify that while no state legislature has approved legalization of marijuana, several have approved decriminalization.