Top State Lawmakers Confident Of Pot Compromise By End Of June

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

With the governor and legislative leaders declaring their confidence that a compromise marijuana bill will be ready for the governor's signature by the end of the month, the House and Senate kicked off a week of marijuana debate Monday.

Five days after botching the rollout of its rewrite of the marijuana legalization ballot law, the Marijuana Policy Committee on Monday advanced a redrafted House bill and sparked a process that could culminate by the end of the week with the appointment of a conference committee that would be tasked with hashing out a final bill before a self-imposed June 30 deadline.

The House adopted an order Monday afternoon establishing a deadline of 5 p.m. on Tuesday for House members to file amendments to the redrafted bill, which was sent to the Ways and Means Committee and is slated to be debated in the House on Wednesday. The Senate is moving ahead with its own bill, calling for amendments by 5 p.m. Tuesday ahead of a debate on Thursday.

"I have no doubt that the bill will get to my desk by the end of the month and that the issues we've been talking about for months with respect to governance and potency labeling and packaging and local control and all the rest will be dealt with," Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday after meeting with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. "I have no doubt."

Even before Baker could answer a question about his preference between the competing House and Senate bills, Rosenberg chimed in and said, "He's gonna love the final product." Rosenberg's remark set he and DeLeo off chuckling as the governor spoke.

Rosenberg added that both branches are debating the issue this week and will then "get into conference and move as quickly as we can to get something to his desk."

DeLeo said he is hopeful he will "see some type of a pathway" to getting a final bill to Baker's desk by June 30 after the branches debate their divergent bills Wednesday and Thursday.

The new House bill is very similar to the House leadership-backed legislation that was met with lukewarm support when the Marijuana Policy Committee released it last week.

Chief among the changes is the fix of a drafting error to clarify that the tax rate levied on all retail marijuana sales would be 28 percent. The bill released last week erroneously compounded the tax, meaning the actual tax paid by a consumer could have been between 55 percent and 80 percent.

"There are other changes throughout the bill, more technical in nature," Rep. Mark Cusack, co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee, said after the committee's executive session Monday.

Activists who worked to legalize marijuana at the ballot last year said the new House bill "is corrected, but it's really not revised."

"We're seeking a lot of amendments. We want the tax rate to go back down to 12 percent. We want local control to revert back to the voters and not be given to selectmen," Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Yes on 4 Coalition and the Marijuana Policy Project, said. "There are a bunch of other things we want to see, too. But amendments aren't going to help this House bill. This House bill, the hostile approach they take to setting up a marijuana industry, is just not workable in any form, so we don't want to see the House bill move forward in any way whatsoever."

The House's plan calls for a 16.75 percent marijuana excise tax and a mandatory 5 percent local tax on top of the state's 6.25 percent sales tax. The effective tax rate would be 28 percent on all marijuana products.

The House's plan would also extend the 16.75 percent marijuana excise tax to marijuana accessories — like bongs, pipes, grinders, vaporizers and other items. The excise tax rate on those products, often sold at convenience stores with the proviso "for tobacco use only," would only be levied on sales at licensed retail marijuana stores.

The House plan would alter the ballot law to allow marijuana establishments to be prohibited from a municipality by a vote of the city council and mayor or board of selectmen and town meeting rather than only by town referendum. The House also proposes requiring marijuana facilities to negotiate and sign an agreement with the host community and pay a "community impact fee" in proportion with the costs related to the marijuana facility incurred by the municipality.

When the committee released its bill last week, several members said they had serious concerns with the bill they hoped could be addressed through amendments. One member, Rep. Aaron Vega, said he would have voted 'no' had that original bill come to the floor without amendments.

Asked Monday what kind of feedback he received on the redrafted bill from House and committee members, Cusack said he heard "some positives, some still with the same concerns about some of the criminal justice aspects of it."

Some members last week said they were concerned that the House bill does not address the issue of sealing criminal records for people previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer crimes.

"I don't disagree with the concept, but we have proper processes here in the Hosue and Senate and that is under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee and that, I think, is the committee to best handle a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that will include expungement," Cusack said. "I don't think we should piecemeal it in."

Despite the differences between the two bills, Cusack said the House and Senate agree on 80 percent of the issues. He said he has "no doubt" the two branches will be able to compromise.

The chairman said he anticipates that local control — whether voters or elected officials get to decide to ban marijuana shops from a town — will be the most difficult issue to resolve in conference committee.

"I think that it's kind of black or white on that one. So trying to come somewhere between them, is there really a hybrid model you could offer that encompasses both? I don't know," he said. "But again, we have to see what the actual final bill in the House looks like and what the final bill in the Senate looks like before we get to conference."



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