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Major Overhaul Of Mass. Marijuana Ballot Law Passes House

Harvested marijuana plants. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Harvested marijuana plants. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After several years of ceding marijuana policy-making to a voting public eager to adopt a more permissive approach to the once completely illegal drug, House lawmakers on Wednesday took the reins of the sticky issue, passing a bill to overhaul how the state will regulate the retail market of the intoxicant.

The legislation approved 126-28 Wednesday night would tax the product at 28 percent, devote $50 million in pot revenues to addiction prevention and treatment, and direct regulators to help those "disproportionately affected" by prohibition to participate in the new industry.

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The Senate plans to take up its version of the legislation Thursday and lawmakers are aiming to meet a self-imposed, end-of-June deadline to deliver a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker with hopes that the yet-to-be-formed Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) can start issuing retail licenses in about a year. The House scheduled an informal session on Friday, which could give lawmakers a chance to start reconciling the two versions of the bills in the next few days.

Activists behind the successful 2016 legalization campaign have been highly critical of the House bill, which they say would set an excessive tax rate that will encourage continued sales on the black market and unfairly put decisions about retail pot stores in the hands of elected officials instead of the voting public. The Yes on 4 Coalition prefers the Senate proposal, which has a lighter touch toward rewriting the ballot law.

On the floor, lawmakers ramped up spending dedicated to substance abuse from $10 million included in an earlier draft to $50 million in the final version. Of that, $5 million would be dedicated to programs in schools.

The bill that passed with bipartisan support also included stronger language encouraging the employment of those who have borne the brunt of enforcement during marijuana prohibition.

The Black and Latino Legislative Caucus told Speaker Robert DeLeo in a letter earlier this month that around the country blacks and Latinos are arrested for marijuana possession at a disproportionate level even though white youths use marijuana at the same rate as their peers of color.

Boston Rep. Byron Rushing, a member of House leadership who joined fellow Black and Latino Caucus members to rally for changes to the bill on Wednesday morning, said the bill that he voted for was an improvement on the earlier version.

SHNS Videos: Reps. Byron Rushing and Mark Cusack after House session.

"We thought that we were able to get enough amendments approved so that this very big ship certainly moved in the direction of diversity when it comes to ownership and employment in this industry as the industry becomes legal," Rushing told the News Service.

The House bill's mandatory tax rate is more than double the maximum 12 percent rate approved by voters, and the House version allows town government officials to ban marijuana shops from town rather requiring a townwide referendum, as the ballot law envisioned.

Rep. Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat who is House chairman of the Committee on Marijuana Policy, said the bill still stuck to the framework of the ballot law. It retains provisions that went into effect in December allowing adults to possess and grow their own marijuana.

Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Yes on 4 Coalition, did not share Cusack's assessment.

"The House tonight repealed and replaced the historic measure enacted by Massachusetts residents last November. They did it with virtually no public discussion or debate. Their bill is wrong on taxes, wrong on local control, weak on social justice and irresponsible on regulatory efficiency. Their proposed regulatory system is structured for the approval of three casino licenses, not hundreds of retail, manufacturing and cultivating licenses. This retrofitted casino bill is a far cry from what voters overwhelmingly approved last year," Borghesani said in a statement after the vote.

The Senate version of the marijuana bill has hewed closer to the version enacted by voters in November. Cusack anticipated differences between the two branches would center on taxes, local control, and the ability of people to clear their records from marijuana crimes.

Before legalizing adult use of marijuana last year, voters decriminalized possession of the substance in 2008 and legalized medical use of marijuana in 2012.

An added wrinkle for state implementation of a regulated marijuana market is that the drug remains illegal under federal law.

Cusack told reporters he does not know how much money would be generated from the nascent industry under the House bill. He said it is difficult to compare Massachusetts to the few states that preceded it in legal marijuana sales.

"You tell me. We have no good model of a marketplace," Cusack said when asked how much money would be raised under the bill. He said revenues would cover the $50 million investment in substance treatment and prevention.

Mattapan Rep. Russell Holmes sought to exclude communities that adopt local marijuana prohibitions from receiving benefits from that pot of money, and 21 of his colleagues joined him in an amendment that would have done that.

Holmes's amendment received a rare roll call vote during Wednesday's session where House lawmakers deliberated throughout the afternoon and into the evening mostly in private, closed-door discussions.

Holmes said he wanted to create an incentive so that marijuana stores are not concentrated in urban areas.

Joining Holmes in voting for the amendment were liberal Democrats such as Somerville Rep. Denise Provost, Brockton Rep. Michelle DuBois and Worcester Rep. Mary Keefe. Other Democrats who voted in favor of the proposal included Waltham Rep. Tom Stanley and Boston Rep. Angelo Scaccia, two men who are not always aligned with their more liberal colleagues. Falmouth Rep. David Vieira was the only Republican to support the measure.

Cusack said one of the "major issues" the committee heard about during public hearings was driving under the influence of marijuana.

"It's a major safety concern, but there is no silver bullet and there is no testing available today that is admissible that would prove someone is actually under the influence, not just of marijuana but any drug frankly," he said.

The House bill creates an 11-member "high-level blue ribbon commission" to study and then make recommendations on ways to handle drivers possibly under the influence of marijuana, depressants, stimulants, and narcotics, Cusack said.

The committee also heard a lot about edible marijuana products, Cusack said, and the House bill seeks to implement "common sense" consumer protection measures.

"We mandate, at a minimum, the CCC shall mandate opaque and childproof packaging, we limit 10 milligrams of THC per serving size of edibles and we make sure it is identified clearly on the package if the package contains more than one serving size," Cusack said.

He added, "We establish nation-leading independent testing standards and labeling requirements across both adult use and medical, allowing consumers and patients the ability to have confidence in the safety of all marijuana products sold in Massachusetts."

While the House bill would combine the adult recreational use and medical marijuana programs under a five-member commission, Cusack said retail shops will not be broken up into a medical side and a recreational use side as they are in Colorado. Instead, the House bill implements "virtual separation," a system that allows medical and recreational users to shop at the same facilities and distinguishes between medical and recreational marijuana at the register.

"This is important for cities and towns where these will be because this keeps footprints small," Cusack said. "It could be medical and recreational with one company under two different licenses, but it will be under one store instead of having two locations in one community."

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