Metro

Marijuana panel chair aims to kill off black market quickly

State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen spoke about marijuana regulation.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen spoke about marijuana regulation.

A key state senator wants to kill the black market for marijuana by keeping the tax on the drug low when it is sold legally next year, continuing to require communities to hold a voter referendum if they want to ban pot shops, and insisting that retail stores can open by July 2018.

Senator Patricia D. Jehlen hopes that approach will effectively clear the way for private, legal marijuana retailers to dominate the market for the sale of marijuana.

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“I want to immediately — as fast as possible — make possible a safe, legal market for adults who want access to get it,” Jehlen, the senator in charge of rewriting Massachusetts’ voter-passed recreational marijuana law, said in an interview with the Globe. “If it’s at a reasonable price, most people will prefer a safe, legal product.”

The comments from Jehlen, a supporter of legalization who is cochairwoman of the Legislature’s marijuana committee, could set her at odds with her colleagues. Other lawmakers have suggested keeping pot legal but making sweeping changes to the law — such as significantly raising the cannabis tax and allowing local legislative bodies, rather than local residents in a referendum, to prohibit local marijuana shops.

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Jehlen, however, stressed that her job is to carry out the will of the voters, broadly interpreted.

While some legislators, including Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, have said voters cast referendum ballots on big principles rather than fine details, Jehlen said she believes voters studied the pot question, even if they didn’t read every page of the more-than-8,000-word initiative petition before it was approved in November.

“My guess is the voters are aware of the tax rate,” Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said with a smile. The voter-passed initiative calls for a 3.75 percent state tax and 2 percent local option tax on pot sales, in addition to Massachusetts’ 6.25 percent sales tax. (That’s 12 percent in total.)

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Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, both Democrats, have expressed openness to raising the tax rate, perhaps considerably. Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has been more circumspect.

Asked if she’s comfortable leaving the tax rate as it currently exists, Jehlen responded instantly: “Yes.”

She said there “may be a little room” for raising it, “but not a lot” because of concerns that people would continue to buy marijuana from the black market, or purchase it legally in states with a lower tax rate. (Maine’s total pot tax rate is set at 10 percent.)

Jehlen is also likely to find herself at odds with many local officials.

Current law says that if municipal officials want to stop a particular type of establishment — for example, marijuana cultivation facilities — or all retail pot establishments, they must go to their voters.

Local officials also need to hold a referendum if they want to sharply limit the number of marijuana shops. If a city has 100 retail stores that sell alcohol, for example, it will need to go to voters if it wants fewer than 20 marijuana retailers.

But the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association wants lawmakers to amend the statute so a community doesn’t have to hold a referendum to restrict pot facilities.

Local legislative bodies, such as the Boston City Council, should have final say on whether or how many pot shops can come to town, just like they do over other major zoning decisions, said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, the association’s executive director and chief executive.

Jehlen disagrees. She supports clarifying the specifics of how communities can put such questions to a vote, but wants to leave the law’s structure in place.

“I don’t think it needs to be any easier; I think it needs clarification,” she said. Her reasoning: If the law makes it too easy for a municipality to prohibit pot shops, the black market never goes away. She pointed to Colorado, where counties had to opt in to having pot shops, and about two-thirds declined.

“If you want to have a legal market, it has to have access for people who want to buy it,” she said. “If there’s nobody within 30 miles, or 50 miles, or 100 miles in Western Mass., if nobody is selling in a legal, safe market, the black market stays.”

There’s another rationale, too, she said. If it becomes much easier for communities to opt out, pot shops may end up banned in more affluent neighborhoods, and “concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.”

But there are areas where Jehlen is keen to see the law changed. One is leveling the playing field, so medical marijuana companies don’t have what she called “an artificial leg up.”

Current law gives most companies that held provisional and final medical marijuana licenses by the end of last year an advantage. They can apply 12 months before anyone else for the right to legally sell and process recreational pot. Those same companies can apply for a license to grow recreational marijuana two years before anyone else.

The rationale, the authors of the law said, was because the companies spent a lot of money getting their operations off the ground. And from a regulatory standpoint, the authors felt that it made sense to let experienced people to have first dibs. Backers also said this was a way to encourage companies to continue offering medical cannabis.

But Jehlen said she wants to see the law changed so new entrants to the legal marijuana industry — including small farmers, and people from minority communities disproportionately impacted by pot prohibition — can have an equal chance to get into the market.

She also is open to an idea floated by her pot panel co-chairman, Representative Mark J. Cusack of Braintree: stripping the state treasurer of unilateral authority to hire and fire the officials who will oversee the new billion-dollar industry, and instead creating an independent marijuana oversight commission.

Jehlen said it’s problematic for one official to have all the power over an industry and it would be better for the oversight structure to be more diffuse. She stressed, however, that she has no problems with the current treasurer, Deborah B. Goldberg.

“It has nothing to do with the incumbent,” she said. “Nothing.”

Reaction to Jehlen’s approach was mixed.

“By and large, these are positive statements,” said Kris Krane, president of 4Front Ventures, a Boston firm that consults with and operates medical cannabis businesses. He said is pleased Jehlen wants to leave much of the law as is.

But he was concerned about her suggestion that existing medical marijuana companies would not have an easier time entering the recreational pot industry. He said it makes sense for the state, as it ramps up the regulated recreational market, to begin dealing with entities that have already been vetted, “and have the existing infrastructure to get up and running quickly.”

The Legislature is expected to send a wide-ranging pot bill to the governor by the end of June.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.
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