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With 44 Bills To Consider, The Legislature's Marijuana Committee Begins Its Work05:43

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The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)closemore
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Legislature's newest committee gets down to business this week, when the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy holds its first public hearing Monday at the State House.

The legislators are considering 44 bills seeking to alter the new law, passed by voters in November, that legalized recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.

The bills range from minor tweaks to an outright repeal of the voter-approved law. Some focus on restricting advertising and stipulate packaging and labeling requirements. There’s legislation that cuts the number of marijuana plants allowed in a single residence from 12 to six, with only three of those allowed to be mature, flowering plants. The same bill would also reduce the quantity of marijuana or marijuana product a person can legally possess.

Some of the bills would change the makeup of the Cannabis Control Commission. The regulatory board was created by the marijuana law and will oversee the marijuana industry, but has yet to be named.

As the law stands now, a three-member commission, with all members appointed by the state treasurer, will issue licenses and set policy. The CCC pretty much mirrors the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission that has had authority over the liquor industry for years. There’s one bill that would just put the marijuana industry under the ABCC as well.

Another would set the CCC up more like the state Gaming Commission, expanding the board to five members: one appointed by the governor, who would have expertise in public health and substance abuse prevention; one appointed by the attorney general, with experience in criminal investigations and law enforcement; and one appointed by the treasurer, specializing in licensing and marijuana regulation. The other two commissioners would be selected by a majority vote of the governor, treasurer and AG. One commissioner would have experience in agriculture and environmental matters. The other would come from a list of three nominees submitted by the ACLU, the NAACP and the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.

Under one bill, consumers would have to "opt-in" to receive mailings and other advertisements from marijuana businesses. Signage on marijuana establishments would have to be "reasonable," and you would have to confirm that you are at least 21 years old before going on a marijuana-related website.

As far as packaging is concerned, one bill would require that the markings on a package include "a clear and distinguished symbol or other easily recognizable mark indicating that the package contains marijuana." Another bill is more prescriptive, spelling out that packaging would have to be opaque, colored grey, be child resistant, and not have any cartoon characters or bright colors. It would also require the identification of the marijuana cultivator and the marijuana product manufacturer, a listing of the number of servings, and a “best by” date.

Does The Law Need Legislative Changes?

Lawmakers feel the time to make changes is now, rather than later, and they want to have their input enshrined in law, instead of simply in regulation.

"There are a number of issues that were not addressed by the ballot question," said Sen. Jason Lewis, a Democrat from Winchester who has sponsored more than a quarter of the bills currently before the committee. "Many of my bills seek to address those issues -- some of the public health issues around prevention and education. Around how we deal with edibles, how we deal with drugged driving, and issues like that. And then there are some aspects of the ballot question where I’ve suggested possible changes that I think would strengthen both public health and public safety."

Proponents of the marijuana law that was passed by voters say these legislative fixes and changes aren't really needed. Their position is to let the law play out as written, fund the CCC, and let it do its work. They say the CCC can appear before the Legislature after it's named, and offer its expert recommendations as to what sort of laws are needed.

"A false narrative has emerged over the past few months on Beacon Hill that the marijuana legalization law passed by voters requires legislative fixes in order to operate successfully," said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Yes on 4 [ballot question] Coalition.

"It is a carefully written and researched measure that creates a regulatory body and gives that body full authority to write all rules regarding product safety, packaging, labeling, applications and permitting. Security, signage and all other aspects of the new industry," added Borghesani.

None of the 44 bills currently assigned to the committee address the marijuana excise tax, which many lawmakers agree is set rather low. Language raising what is now a 3.75 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana sales is expected to be offered in the future.

This isn't the first time the Legislature has tinkered with the law.

Just before New Year's, lawmakers put a six-month hold on pretty much everything, except for the effective date, which was Dec. 15. Under the law passed by voters, the state treasurer was supposed to have named the Cannabis Control Commission by March 1, 2017. The Legislature delayed that until Sept. 1. Retail sales of marijuana were supposed to begin Jan. 1, 2018. That’s delayed until July 1 of next year. Other than that, the law pretty much stands as was approved by the voters.

Monday's hearing will accept testimony by invitation only: from proponents of the marijuana law, state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, the attorney general's office, the Public Health, Revenue and Agriculture departments, and the Gaming Commission. The public is invited to weigh in during future hearings on subsequent Mondays in West Springfield, Boston and Shrewsbury.

After hearing what people have to say at the public hearings, the committee and staff will likely huddle behind closed doors and then draft an omnibus marijuana bill with some features of these many bills, and possibly address the taxation issue as well.

Chances are the House and Senate will have differences, and a final compromise will need to be reached in a conference committee. They hope to have all of this wrapped up by July 1.

This segment aired on March 20, 2017.

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Steve Brown Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's State House reporter.

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