State pot panel wants to consider voter preferences

State House News Service
Published: 2/23/2017 10:44:15 PM

Its membership is not finalized and no bills have been assigned to it, but the Committee on Marijuana Policy is aiming to hear from people around Massachusetts and produce a bill addressing aspects of the state’s new marijuana law by the end of June, committee leaders said Wednesday.

Massachusetts voters approved marijuana legalization at the ballot in November, but the Legislature delayed implementation of most of the bill by six months. The new committee will research and vet dozens of marijuana—related bills filed since it became legal for adults to use, possess, grow or gift marijuana in December, and produce legislation changing the ballot law written by marijuana advocates.

“We definitely have our work cut out for us in the next few months to get something, hopefully a consensus bill,” House committee chairman Rep. Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, said.

Along with Somerville Sen. Patricia Jehlen, Cusack is tasked with starting a committee from scratch and swiftly acting on a controversial issue that has the attention of voters, legislative leaders and the governor. Jehlen, Cusack and other members were appointed to the committee last week. The Senate Republican caucus has not yet appointed its members to the committee.

Lawmakers over the years have largely avoided tinkering with ballot laws, but they have made clear they intend to alter the marijuana law and that’s likely to trigger constant debate over whether their recommendations go too far. Two people who will have major influence over the bill — Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — were among the leading opponents of legal marijuana, while Senate President Stanley Rosenberg was a supporter.

“We’re kind of in a unique situation in that it’s a new committee and we have an issue but the voters have already weighed in on that issue, and that’s what we’re starting from,” Cusack said. “We know how the public has already weighed in and we’re not going to go back on the people’s will.”

The legalization question passed at the ballot with roughly 54 percent support. Cusack and Jehlen made clear Wednesday that adult marijuana users will have legal access to the drug at some point next year, but the industry may not take exactly the same form as envisioned in the ballot question.

“I really think the voters asked for access and availability and they asked to bring it out of the black market,” Jehlen said, adding that she believes voters were not necessarily endorsing every detail of the ballot question by voting in favor of it.

Cusack said he views the ballot question results as people weighing in on the question of legalizing recreational marijuana. “It wasn’t, ‘Do you agree with this 21-page, 10-point font ballot initiative?’” he said.

Jehlen voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in November, while Cusack has declined to reveal how he voted on the measure.

Though she said she is open to listening to arguments from all sides, Jehlen said the burden of proof will be placed on opponents to show her that the change is necessary and comports with the desire of the voters.

“Any change, I have to be convinced that it was a mistake and that it was contrary to the will of the voters,” she said.

Among the possible changes to the law, the tax rate on marijuana sales appears most ripe for revision. The ballot law established a 3.75 percent tax rate on marijuana sales, on top of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities or towns have the ability to add their own 2 percent tax as well.

At an effective tax rate of 12 percent, Massachusetts would still have the lowest marijuana rate of any state that has legalized the adult use of the drug. Colorado taxes marijuana at 29 percent, Washington 37 percent, Oregon 17 percent and Alaska 25 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.

“I think we need to have a tax rate that supports whatever regulatory and educational structure we need,” Jehlen said. “I’m against expanding bureaucracies unnecessarily and I’m also against raising the tax so much that it drives people back to the black market.”

Cusack, like Jehlen, said he has no specific number or range in mind for an appropriate tax rate, and predicted it will be “a major balancing act” to find the sweet spot where marijuana sales bring in enough revenue to support the regulatory system but do not make it cheaper for users to return to the illicit market.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has previously said that the number of marijuana plants an adult is allowed to grow in their home may be reduced by the Legislature. Since December it has been legal to grow six plants per adult, or up to 12 per household, and Jehlen said she is not inclined to alter the existing limits.


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