Taxes on recreational marijuana products could be as high as 28 percent under a bill about to be taken up by the Massachusetts House on Thursday, according to a draft copy of the legislation obtained by WBUR late Tuesday.
The bill, drafted by the House chairman of the Legislature's Marijuana Policy Committee, makes some major changes to the way legal pot would be regulated when compared to how the law was written in a voter-approved referendum last November that legalized recreational marijuana in the state.
Also changed is the way communities could prohibit and restrict marijuana businesses within their borders, eliminating the need for the question of a ban to be put before voters. The proposal would not change adult "personal use" provisions — that is, the limits around how much marijuana a person can have on their person and in their home — and maintains a six-plant-per-person “home grow” limit, with a maximum of 12 plants per household.
Most of the changes pertain to the regulatory body that is being created to oversee the marijuana industry. An independent, five-person Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) would be set up, with one member appointed by the governor, one by the attorney general and one by the state treasurer. The two remaining members would be chosen by a majority vote of the aforementioned appointing constitutional officers. The state’s medical marijuana program, which is currently overseen by the state Department of Public Health, would be shifted over to the regulation of the CCC.
Supporters of the referendum that legalized recreational marijuana last fall are highly critical of the proposed changes.
“The House proposal does not improve the marijuana bill passed by voters. It weakens it, and it insults voters in the process, by taking local control away from voters and giving it to local governing authorities,” said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for Yes on 4 — the ballot measure Massachusetts voters passed legalizing pot.
“We hope that the Senate comes out with a more realistic and more effective proposal for the new marijuana system in Massachusetts,” he added.
The bill addresses many aspects of the new marijuana law. Here's an overview:
The voter-approved referendum set taxes on recreational weed products at a combined total of 12 percent. (This breaks down to a 3.75 percent marijuana excise tax, a 6.25 percent state sales tax and a 2 percent local option tax.) That rate was considerably lower than the rates in other states that have already legalized recreational marijuana. (For example, the tax rate in Washington is 37 percent; in Colorado, it's 29 percent; Alaska, 25 percent; and finally, in Oregon, 17 percent.)
The proposed changes increase the overall tax up to 28 percent, boosting the excise tax to 16.75 percent and allowing communities to impose a local tax of 5 percent. Medical marijuana would not be subject to the tax.
There may be pushback against the higher taxes when the bill gets to the Senate.
Speaking before learning all the details of the House proposal, the Senate chair of the Joint Marijuana Policy Committee, Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, questioned the hike.
“I believe the high tax rate will help preserve the black market and combined with a lack of access. I think you’ll see that the three states that were first adopters lowered their tax rate. They still have high tax rates, and they still have high penetration by the illicit market,” said Jehlen.
The proposal also mandates that after paying expenses to operate the Cannabis Control Commission, at least $10 million must be earmarked to fund substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
Ever since voters approved last year's ballot referendum, city and town officials have been critical of the process municipalities must follow in order to prohibit marijuana businesses from setting up shop within their borders.
The existing law requires the question of a ban must be put before voters before being implemented. The House proposal does away with the requirement for a local referendum. Cities and towns can enact local bylaws and ordinances, but they cannot restrict more than they have for a medical marijuana zoning bylaw or ordinance.
While the CCC will set regulations, the Legislature wants to stipulate the maximum amount of the active ingredient THC allowed in marijuana products. The proposed law states a limit of 10 mg of THC in a serving size of edibles. Products would have to clearly identify if a package contains more than one serving size.
Advertising practices by the marijuana industry would be severely limited under the proposed law. Radio, TV, billboard, print and internet advertising would be prohibited, unless at least 71.6 percent of the audience is over 21. Ads cannot be targeted to anyone under 21, nor can they depict anyone less than 21. Neon signs at retail marijuana shops would be prohibited, and lighted signs could only be illuminated 30 minutes before sunset and until closing.
Home Growing And Personal Use
The proposed bill doesn’t differ from the voter-approved law when it comes to rules around growing plants at home and personal use limits. Every adult over the age of 21 can grow up to six cannabis plants, with a maximum of 12 per residence. Adults can have up to one ounce of marijuana on their person, and 10 ounces stored at home.
Driving Under The Influence Commission
The bill creates a special commission to examine the problem of driving under the influence of marijuana. The 11-member commission would make recommendations to the House and Senate on possible legislation to combat drugged driving by July 1, 2019.
The Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy will report out the bill Wednesday at noon, with the full House taking up the matter just 25 hours later. This leaves little time for House members to file amendments.
Once passed by the full House, the bill will head over to the Senate for debate possibly as early as next week. It is very likely the Senate will come up with their own version of the bill, possibly with a lower tax rate and other changes.
Like most pieces of controversial and complex legislation, differences between the House and Senate will have to be rectified in a conference committee. However, time remains of the essence. Officials in both chambers say they want to have this bill on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by July 1.
This segment aired on June 14, 2017.