House guts voter-approved pot law
Measure overhauls key pieces from tax rate to oversight
THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE will unveil a measure Wednesday that completely overhauls the voter-approved referendum legalizing recreational marijuana while also moving oversight of medical marijuana under the same regulatory umbrella.
About the only thing the 48-page bill, a copy of which was obtained by CommonWealth, leaves in place from the question put before voters last November is allowing private individuals to grow up to 12 plants for personal use and possess up to 10 ounces, with nine under lock and key. But everything else, from jacking up the tax rate to the makeup of the regulatory commission to how communities can opt out, has been significantly altered by lawmakers who had no appetite for passing their own bill before their hand was forced by a 55 to 45 percent approval by voters.
The bill will be voted on by the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy in an executive session before going to the full House for a vote on Thursday. It’s unlikely senators on the panel will weigh in but, under the rules, will draft their own version that will have to be reconciled with whatever final version the House adopts. Gov. Charlie Baker, who opposed the ballot question, has said he wants a bill on his desk that reflects voter intent by the end of the month.
Under the proposal, the voter-approved 12 percent tax rate – 3.75 percent excise tax, a 2 percent local option tax, and the 6.25 sales tax – will more than double to 28 percent on what has been predicted to be a billion-dollar industry within a few years. The measure calls for a 16.75 percent excise tax on gross revenues on top of the sales tax, and a 5 percent levy that is collected by the state and turned over to the host community. The local tax could give pause to communities who are considering a ban, putting added revenue into tight municipal coffers. Medical marijuana would remain untaxed.
Under the rewritten measure, the governor, attorney general, and treasurer would each have one appointment with the other two appointed by a vote of the three constitutional officers. Each member is mandated to have a specific area of expertise from health, finance, or public safety, among some of the requirements.
The bill would shift oversight of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Health to the cannabis commission. It also would give preference for retail licensing to those medical dispensaries that have made it through the application process but had not yet been issued licenses. The bill also creates an additional layer of oversight, establishing an unpaid advisory committee.
In one of the more controversial moves, the House bill strips voters in cities and towns from making the determination on potential bans and allows governing bodies – city councils or boards of selectmen – to make the decision to opt out. The ballot question required a community-wide referendum.Calls to several committee members were not immediately returned. Proponents of the ballot question were critical of all the changes. They said raising the levy so high will foster a black market or push consumers to drive to neighboring states, such as Maine, that will have a lower tax rate. They also said most of the other changes fly in the face of what voters thought they approved.
“The House proposal in no way improves the measure passed by voters,” Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the ballot question committee, wrote in an email. “It weakens it and it insults voters in the process. Its irrational tax increase will give drug dealers the ability to undercut the legal market, and its removal of ban authority from local voters will give a handful of selectmen the ability to overrule the opinion of their own constituents… We hope the Senate puts forward a proposal which, unlike the House attempt, will keep the new system effective, accountable and respectful of the voters’ will.”