Massachusetts Senate seeks to tweak, rather than completely overhaul, state's new marijuana law

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Eyeing a June 30 deadline to get a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, the Massachusetts Senate on Friday released a proposal that attempts to come closer to the recreational marijuana law voters approved in November.

Through a ballot question, voters broadly legalized usage of recreational marijuana by adults ages 21 and over. But state lawmakers, who mostly opposed the ballot question, repeatedly said they planned to make changes if it passed.

The Senate proposal keeps in place voter referendums, rather than handing over control over pot bans to the governing entities of cities and towns as the House version does.

“Keeping the voters’ voice is important,” Patricia Jehlen, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Marijuana Policy Committee, told MassLive.com.

Jehlen, D-Somerville, prefers the total tax rate on marijuana stay at 12 percent, same as the voter-approved law. A higher tax rate would preserve the black market that the voter-approved law seeks to tamp down, she said.

The Massachusetts House released its version earlier this week, seeking more of an overhaul of the law. House lawmakers are aiming for a 28 percent tax rate for marijuana.

But they scrapped plans to vote on their proposal Thursday after marijuana legalization advocates said the bill as written actually could lead to a 56 percent or 80 percent tax.

The House chair, Rep. Mark Cusack, has said they still intend to cap the tax rate at 28 percent.

“With a bill of this magnitude and an issue of this import, it deserves 100 percent focus and all of our energy so we can get this right,” Cusack, D-Braintree, told the State House News Service, an independent wire covering Beacon Hill.

“We’re trying to do a good bill but also being mindful that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good with the four months we’ve had,” he said on Thursday evening, before the Senate rolled out its proposal.

House lawmakers plan to vote on a revised bill next week. Down the hall, a vote on the Senate bill could also come next week.

Gov. Baker has said he wants a bill on his desk by June 30 in order to allow time for the retail marijuana bureaucracy to get up and running. A six-month delay passed by lawmakers earlier this year pushed retail pot shop openings to July 1, 2018.

Baker told MassLive.com he wants a tax rate that covers the cost of overseeing legal marijuana in Massachusetts. He added that the rate could be adjusted as the legal marijuana industry and oversight settles into the state.

Marijuana legalization advocates have said no changes should be made to the law until after the industry gets up and running.

Comparing the two proposals, the House and Senate appear to be in agreement on several areas:

  • Both preserve the possession and home-growing provisions that voters approved, including up to 12 plants per household.
  • Moving oversight of medical marijuana out from under the state’s Department of Public Health to the Cannabis Control Commission. Voters approved marijuana for medical use in 2012, and medical marijuana would stay untaxed under both House and Senate proposals.
  • They’re close in the governance structure. Both support expanding the Cannabis Control Commission to five members from three members. (The Senate gives more control to the commission on advertising, packaging and labeling standards, and keeps the commission under the state treasurer’s office.)
  • Both the House and Senate include the creation of a commission to study and report on the effects of driving under the influence of marijuana.
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Source: 420 Intel – United States

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