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House Speaker Postpones Vote On Changes To Mass. Marijuana Law03:56Download

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Marijuana seedlings in trays at the NETA cultivation center in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Marijuana seedlings in trays at the NETA cultivation center in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is postponing a vote on a bill that would make changes to the state's recreational marijuana law that was passed by voters last year.

The House was originally scheduled to vote on the proposed revisions, written by House Democrats, on Thursday. But on Wednesday, problems regarding the bill and the language it uses cropped up moments after the Legislature's marijuana committee was gaveled into session.

The committee's Senate chair, Patricia Jehlen, who first saw the rewrite less than 12 hours beforehand, lambasted it.

"Mr. Chairman, I would like to say that this proposed bill directly assaults the will of the voters and is a prescription for increasing the illicit market," she said.

Jehlen pointed out the way the bill was written, taxes on marijuana would be 55 percent — not the 28 percent claimed in the House summary. That 28 percent cap is already a steep increase from the voter-approved law currently on the books, which allows for taxes on recreational marijuana up to 12 percent.

"The tax rate will be the highest in the country. Compounded — 21 percent tax on growers, 21 percent tax on manufacturers and 28 percent at the retail level — will be the highest by far in the country," she said.

While differences between the House and Senate are always to be expected, even House Democrats appeared lukewarm to the proposal.

Holyoke state Rep. Aaron Vega, a Democrat, said he doesn't like the high tax or that the bill would take decisions to ban marijuana businesses in cities and towns away from voters, and instead leave them up to local officials. The existing law requires the question of a ban be put before local voters.

"It's with deep reservation that I will be supporting this out of committee, but I will not at all hesitate to vote no on the floor if this bill continues in its shape in the form that it is," he said. "And I will encourage my colleagues as well, if things are not adjusted, to vote no on the floor."

Democratic House members met in a closed-door caucus later Wednesday afternoon for more than an hour and a half to express their concerns. When it was over, DeLeo announced a delay in the vote.

"There are certain things that we have to clear up," he said. "And so because of that, I think it's important that with a bill of this magnitude that we try to get it right, or as close as right, the first time. And so I'd rather do that than rush it, or try to rush it through."

The biggest issue to clear up appears to be taxes. House Marijuana Policy Committee Chairman Mark Cusack says it was never his intention to tax marijuana at 55 percent.

"It's one of the issues that's been brought forward, and that is not the intent of the legislation, and we are currently working on a fix among other issues. Our goal here is, all in, 28 [percent] net effective tax rate capped and at the point of sale. Not at wholesale," he explained.

After changes are made, the House expects to debate the bill sometime next week. But still, it appears there will be wide differences in the approaches by each of the Legislature's chambers.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg says even the 28 percent tax seems high to him and indicated the Senate doesn't want to go as far as the House in totally revamping the existing marijuana law.

"Remember, we're going to do a series of bills over time. We don't have to address everything that the committee has worked on already," Rosenberg said. "The main thing we have to do is get the governance thing right, so that the agency can be pulled together and they can get working on the regulations."

One thing the Senate president and House speaker agree upon is a desire to get a bill on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk by the end of the month. But with just two weeks remaining, and this latest delay, that may prove to be a challenge.

This segment aired on June 15, 2017.

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

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