The Massachusetts House of Representatives will begin debate Thursday on a bill making changes to the state’s voter-passed recreational marijuana law.
House Chairman Mark Cusack (D-Braintree) has said repeatedly it is the committee’s intent to have a bill on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by July 1. The target date is exactly one year before retail sales of marijuana are supposed to begin.
As passed by voters, the law gave all regulatory power to a three-person Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) that would fall under the office of state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, with all members to be appointed by the treasurer.
Soon after the referendum was passed, House and Senate leadership expressed concerns about that board’s makeup, and suggested expanding the commission to five members, each with a different skillset (law enforcement, public health, business regulation) along the lines of the state Gaming Commission, which was set up in the 2011 legislation that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts. Still to be determined is if the CCC will remain under the auspices of the treasurer’s office, or be completely independent.
Goldberg has said in the past that taking the CCC out from her office would likely delay implementation of the law.
As of now, $300,000 that was approved by the Legislature back in March to help set up the CCC remains untouched in a reserve account, after Cusack wrote a letter to the Baker administration asking it to withhold releasing the money to the treasurer’s office, since the Legislature is considering restructuring the CCC.
The treasurer’s office had hoped to use the first six months of this year to set a regulatory structure in motion. Sources in the treasurer’s office also say the robust interest from qualified individuals hoping to serve on the CCC has slowed down in recent months.
Another issue is the level of marijuana taxation.
Under existing law, recreational marijuana retail sales will be subject to an up to 12 percent tax (6.25 percent sales tax, 3.75 percent excise tax and 2 percent local tax). Most everyone in the Legislature agrees that is low, especially when compared to marijuana taxes in other states (Washington, 37 percent; Colorado, 29 percent; Alaska, 25 percent; Oregon, 17 percent).
There are two schools of thought on taxation. One: Raise it to bring in much-needed revenue. On the other hand: Don’t raise it too much so that black market sales continue to flourish. Supporters of the referendum, who have been closely monitoring the proposed legislative changes, are not likely to object to the tax being raised, so long as it does not exceed a total of 20 percent, and they would like to see the bulk of any increases go to the local communities.
Finally, the House and Senate appear to be at odds over the issue of expungement.
Senate Chair Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) sponsored a bill that would erase any past violation of a marijuana law, if that violation is no longer a crime under the voter-approved marijuana law. Sources in the House hint that it might be better for the issue of expungement be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee and possibly be taken up individually, or as part of an anticipated criminal justice reform package that is expected sometime this legislative session.
There are indicators that the two branches have been unable to reach a consensus on major points in the bill that will come out of committee. The negotiations taking place behind closed doors between the House and Senate chairs and their staffs have been aimed at finding common ground early in the process, in the hopes of avoiding more negotiations after the full House and Senate have a chance to debate the issue.
Inevitably, most pieces of legislation emerge from both branches slightly, or sometimes vastly, different, meaning the final bill is written in a House-Senate conference committee. If agreement can be reached on major points now, the conference committee, which would likely be doing its work in early July, should have an easier go of it.
An important factor to keep in mind is that the voter-approved law legalizing adult-use of recreational marijuana is on the books. The only changes the Legislature has made thus far is a six-month delay on all of the target dates for appointing a CCC and an advisory board, and licensing and retail sales.
The Legislature will have to reach agreement if they want to make changes; the big question is when they can achieve that compromise.