BOSTON (AP) — A top Democratic lawmaker on Tuesday proposed directing tax revenue from legal marijuana sales in Massachusetts toward the state’s battle against opioid addiction.
In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, House Speaker Robert DeLeo called for creation of a Substance Addiction Fund using proceeds from retail pot sales, which are not expected to begin in Massachusetts until mid-2018 at the earliest.
A voter-approved law allows adults to possess and grow marijuana for recreational purposes.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, opposed the November ballot question in part because of concerns that marijuana can be a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs, such as heroin.
In proposing the fund to fight opioid addiction, the speaker drew a parallel with a trust fund the state established to prevent and treat problem gambling, using revenue from casinos in Massachusetts.
“We have a rare opportunity to deploy a new tactic to fight what has become the fastest growing killer of young adults and other Massachusetts residents,” DeLeo told the gathering of business leaders.
State health officials estimate there were as many as 2,000 opioid-related overdose deaths last year, marking the sixth consecutive year that fatal overdoses have increased despite aggressive efforts by the state to bring the scourge under control.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he had not discussed the proposed fund with the speaker, but called the idea interesting.
DeLeo’s proposal appears to add to the likelihood that lawmakers would adjust the state’s marijuana tax.
The law calls for a 3.75 percent excise tax on marijuana that would be added to the state’s regular 6.25 percent sales tax, along with an optional 2 percent local tax.
The aggregate tax still would be considerably lower than what is assessed in several states, including Colorado, Washington and Oregon, which previously legalized recreational marijuana. At the current rate, critics say the tax might not even raise enough to cover the costs of regulating recreational marijuana, let alone generate additional revenue for other purposes.
A higher tax rate is among several potential revisions to the Massachusetts law being considered by a panel of legislators.
RegulateMass, a group that led the drive to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, has urged lawmakers to respect the will of voters and hold off on any significant changes to the tax rate or other aspects of the law.
Also Tuesday, Massachusetts Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office will oversee regulation of recreational marijuana, wrote to U.S. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking clarification on how the Department of Justice plans to enforce federal marijuana laws.
Goldberg pointed to comments by White House officials suggesting stepped-up enforcement. That would be a change from the Obama administration, which opted against intervening in local marijuana laws provided states had systems to control the drug’s cultivation and sale.
Goldberg asked Sessions to clarify “what changes we should prepare for before we commit significant public resources to implementing Massachusetts’ recreational marijuana laws.”