It may be a few weeks later than they planned, but Massachusetts lawmakers appear to have agreed on legislation to implement changes to the voter-approved law legalizing marijuana in the state.
The so-called compromise bill was introduced in the state House of Representatives on the Monday and, according to The Boston Globe, is expected to cruise through both chambers to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker by Thursday.
The Democrat-controlled legislature originally planned to pass the bill by the end of last month, exactly a year before recreational marijuana shops become legal in the state. However, lawmakers struggled to immediately reconcile the differences between the state Senate and House bills, the latter of which was staunchly opposed by legalization advocates.
Their new bill splits the difference on a number of proposed changes.
1. The marijuana tax
The law passed by voters last November originally set the maximum marijuana tax — including the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax — at 12 percent, a relatively low rate compared to other states that have legalized recreational marijuana, which some, including Baker, worried might not cover the cost of overseeing the new market.
The House proposed to raise the rate to 28 percent, while the Senate proposed no change. In the bill introduced Monday, lawmakers arrived exactly in the middle: 20 percent.
Supporters of legal marijuana had cautioned that if the state raised the rate too high, it would fuel the black market for the drug. In a statement Monday, Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Yes on 4 campaign, said the group was “relieved” by the new bill.
“The compromise alters the approach on taxes and local control contained in Question 4, but it falls far short of the onerous House language, which would have added untold difficulties to establishing an effective regulatory system,” Borghesani said.
In a press conference Monday, Baker also suggested he would support the 20 percent rate, as long as it was enough.
2. Local bans
Another point of contention was whether local towns and cities could decide to ban marijuana shops, farms, and other related establishments.
The original law (as well as the Senate bill) allowed this only if local residents voted for the ban in a referendum. Meanwhile, a provision, which Baker supported, in the House bill would have given local elected officials the power to ban marijuana shops in their communities — without any official say from local voters.
Again, the two sides came down on an interesting, though perhaps legally dubious, middle way.
According to the new bill, the power to ban marijuana shops would depend on how a specific town voted on the marijuana ballot question last November. If the majority of the town voted to legalize marijuana last year, the power to ban shops and other entities would remain with them. But if the majority of the town voted against legalization, local officials can go ahead and decide on potential bans.
The Globe has a nice town-by-town list and infographic here on which communities did and didn’t vote to approve the ballot measure. The vast majority — roughly 72 percent of the population — did.
However, as the Globe also reported Monday, this compromise provision concerns legal experts, who say it may be unconstitutional with regards to the equal treatment of the state’s citizens.
“Think about the larger issue,” local attorney Thomas O. Bean told the Globe. “The Legislature passes a law that has one provision for one set of cities and towns, and a different provision for another set of cities and towns, based on a vote that no one took.”
3. How it will be regulated
The ballot measure approved last November included a new state regulatory board called the Cannabis Control Commission, which would have three members appointed by the state treasurer, currently Deb Goldberg.
The board will be tasked with deciding on a plethora on new marijuana rules — including regulations on marketing, labeling, and growing; fines and penalties for violations; and measures ensuring equitable opportunity within the market.
Both the House and Senate bills changed the commission to a five-person board, with members appointed by the governor, attorney general, and state treasurer. So it’s no surprise that the new bill does the same, modeling the Cannabis Control Commission after the state’s five-member regulatory commission for casino gambling.
All in all, the compromise bill appears to satisfy legalization supporters.
“The law passed by voters was well-crafted and required no alteration,” Matthew Schweich, the national Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state campaigns, said in a statement Tuesday.
“However, we respect the need for compromise,” he continued, “and while we don’t approve of every provision of this bill, we are satisfied that the outcome will serve the interests of Massachusetts residents and allow the Commonwealth to displace the unregulated marijuana market with a system of taxation and regulation.”
By the end of this week, we may find out whether Baker agrees.