What you need to know about the potential changes to Massachusetts’s legal marijuana law

–Miguel Medina / Getty Images

Last November, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure making the commonwealth one of eight states where recreational marijuana was legal. However, the law that residents approved could look quite different than the one that is ultimately implemented.

First, it’s important to understand what has already changed.

The 2016 vote meant that it became legal to possess limited amounts of marijuana in the Bay State that December, but it wouldn’t be legal to sell until January 1, 2018, as lawmakers worked to set up the necessary regulatory infrastructure. But before the end of the year, legislators passed a bill to delay that date six months until July 2018. That means it remains legal to possess marijuana, but illegal to sell it in the state for at least another 12 months.

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Now, (as has been expected) state lawmakers are proposing more changes to the law. Two differing bills have been introduced in the House and Senate, which legislators hope to reconcile and pass before the end of the month. The House passed their version Wednesday night, and the Senate followed on theirs Thursday night.

While the bills would not change some of the foundational aspects of the voter-approved law (such as limits and regulations on possession), they also propose some significant changes.

Marijuana tax

Current law: 12 percent (combines sales, excise, and potential local taxes)

House bill: 28 percent

Senate bill: 12 percent (no change)

Advocates of the House bill say the revenue increase is necessary to adequately regulate the substance and that the rate would be inline with other states with legalized marijuana. Washington, for example, has a total marijuana tax rate of 37 percent.

Critics, however, argue the change in Massachusetts’s law could drive marijuana sales back into the underground market. For this reason among others, Yes on 4, the group that backed last year’s ballot measure, has endorsed the Senate bill.

As The Boston Globe reported earlier this week, leaders in both the House and Senate have expressed openness to reaching a compromise between the two tax rates when the two bills are expectedly merged in committee next week.

Local bans on marijuana shops

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Current law: Towns can only limit or ban marijuana shops by voter referendum

House bill: Local elected officials can ban shops without voter approval

Senate bill: No change from current law

Originally, only voters had the power to ban commercial marijuana stores (as well as other related establishments, such as farms). The House bill’s rewrite would puportedly give towns more flexibility, in lieu of having to hold a referendum. But it would also shift political power away from voters.

This particular provision could be a point of contention when legislators try to merge the two bills, due to the lack of attainable middle ground.

“The ballot referendum and local officials, I think that it’s kind of black-and-white on that one,” Rep. Mark Cusack, the author of the House bill, told the Globe. “So trying to come somewhere between that — Is there really a hybrid model you could offer that encompasses both? I don’t know.”

Who’s in charge

Current law: Three-member regulatory commission; all three members appointed by the state treasurer

House bill: Five-member regulatory commission; one member appointed by the treasurer, one appointed by the governor, one appointed by the attorney general, and two members appointed by all three officials

Senate bill: Same as House bill

Under the current law, the state treasurer (currently Deb Goldberg) has unilateral power to make appointments to the three member Cannabis Control Commission, which has the broad responsibility of regulating and deciding the rules of the state’s new marijuana industry. Framers of the original ballot measure say it was modeled after the state’s regulatory commission for alcohol.

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But given the relatively politically charged nature of legal marijuana, some worried about the commission’s independence if one official’s appointees got too much influence. The alternative five-member commission is modeled after the state’s commission for casino gambling.

As the Associated Press reported in April, both Goldberg and the Yes on 4 campaign oppose the potential changes to commission.

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