Mass. pot law draws mixed reactions

  • Citrix cannabis buds, one of four flowering strains offered at New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Money and Marijuana. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A display of the products offered at New England Treatment Access marijuana dispensary (NETA) in Northampton. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/1/2017 7:09:18 PM

GREENFIELD — While local legislators hope recent changes to the recreational marijuana law signed into effect by Gov. Charlie Baker last week will help the region’s farming industry, some officials worry that an uptick in underage use may be on the horizon.

From a technical side, the newly signed law’s biggest effect on Franklin County will be on the tax rate.

The law, updating legislation from the November ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana, raises the maximum tax rate on marijuana to 20 percent. When voters supported the “Question 4” effort, the outlined rate was a maximum 12 percent tax rate.

The 20 percent tax breaks down as follows: 6.25 percent state sales tax, 10.75 percent excise tax on marijuana and an optional sales tax of up to 3 percent.

Lawmakers point to the 3 percent sales tax option as the major win locally. While some states have a 1 percent sales tax on pot, the bump up to 3 percent — which towns and not the state would collect — is seen as a way to help protect the local, budding industry.

“We put provisions in the bill to ensure that this will not be captive of large corporate operations as has happened in other states,” state Senate President Stan Rosenberg said. “We want our local farmers to participate in the local marijuana economy if they chose to do so.”

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said he has filed bills to legalize industrial hemp for the past couple of sessions, hoping to help local farmers generate more potential revenue in an ever-changing industry.

“This should create new economic potential for farmers in our region,” Mark said.

In November, all 26 towns in Franklin County voted “yes” to recreational marijuana. The narrowest margin of victory for “Question 4” in the county came in Rowe, 53 percent; the widest margin of victory for “Question 4” came in Wendell, 79 percent.

The law also regulates how towns can potentially halt or severely damper the opening of pot shops for recreational use. The new law splits this implementation policy.

For towns that voted down the ballot measure, the Selectboard will have the right to decide whether the new recreational laws will be implemented. But for the towns that voted in favor of the ballot measure — every town in Franklin County — then it will be up to a voter referendum to attempt to bat down the law.

“The local option for Franklin County remains exactly the same,” Rosenberg said. “If they want to prohibit facilities, they go to the ballot.”

Residents of towns that voted for the measure can also address concerns by approaching zoning and planning boards, for example, to suggest recommendations on regulation. Things can be tricky though, because Massachusetts is a “right-to-farm” state, which with this law, allows farmers to grow marijuana.

Farmers cannot sell marijuana that they grown at a farm stand, but instead will have to sell it to dispensaries, according to the legislation.

The law also opens the way to craft cultivation, allowing for a cultivator cooperative where residents can grow together, potentially opening the possibility for niche strands.

From a policing side, Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh said enforcement remains more or less the same. Residents can still carry up to an ounce on their person. If they smoke in public, it is a civil offense, yielding a $100 fine. A person also must be at least 21 years old.

Since November, Haigh said he hasn’t seen a lot of private growers yet. He believes that’s because of initial questions on the tax rate, which have now been more clearly addressed.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue because I think the folks who want to do that will be very cognizant of what they can and can’t do,” Haigh said. “I think that’ll take care of itself.”

The police chief also has not noticed a significant increase in people smoking pot in public since the ballot question.

“I’ll say that our area, Greenfield, has been pretty respectful about the thing,” Haigh said. “We haven’t had folks throw things in our face or other people’s face.”

His biggest concerns are centered around the price of the product that will be sold and the availability of edibles.

Haigh said he worries that a bump in the tax rate could drive the market to the street.

“The question is certainly out there,” Haigh said. “You make anything too expensive, people will find another way to get it. I don’t think increasing the price will decrease the usage. It’ll just change where you get it. And anything that you don’t know where it comes from, it has the potential to be deadly. Honestly I don’t care if it’s marijuana or heroin.”

He is concerned about when stores start carrying edibles.

“My concern is once they hit stores and become a little more prevalent, that’s concerning to me as a chief and concerning to me as a parent,” Haigh said.

Also concerned for the health and development of kids are those at the Partnership for Youth and Communities, out of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

“It feels like we need to commit ourselves anew to high quality, evidence-based programs that will prevent all sorts of substance abuse and other risky behaviors,” said Kat Allen, the coalition coordinator for Partnership for Youth, pointing to the existing program in some schools, LifeSkills.

According to countywide data from the Partnership for Youth, the usage of marijuana among middle-schoolers and high-schoolers has not changed significantly in the past decade.

In 2003, about 40 percent of 12th-graders in schools across the county responded to survey data saying they have used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 12th-graders in 2015 came in at a 41 percent clip. The percent of eighth-graders who currently use marijuana has declined, down to 5 percent in 2015 from 18 percent in 2003.

Experts hope to continue education to students and parents about potential risks to early brain development.

“That’s something that we need to be really careful of because use tends to follow perception of risk,” Allen said.

Greenfield Recorder

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