The Democratic leadership of the Massachusetts House of Representatives is set to release an overhaul of the voter-passed marijuana legalization law Wednesday, with the full 160-member chamber expected to vote on the bill Thursday.
What the rewrite will do remains opaque. Even though the Legislature’s committee on marijuana policy has been working on the issue for months and has held several public hearings, it has not yet released any draft language.
That’s unusual even by the secretive standards of the Massachusetts Legislature because lawmakers are tinkering with a ballot question passed by more than 1.8 million voters in November.
After the House passes its version of the bill, it will go to the Senate, where it’s likely to be changed, perhaps substantially. Lawmakers hope to have a final compromise bill on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, closed-door discussions about the marijuana law were heating up Monday on Beacon Hill. A regularly scheduled afternoon meeting between Baker, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and top aides was canceled at the behest of the speaker’s office, according to DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell. He said the House used that time to work on the omnibus marijuana legislation and other matters.
Creating a new oversight regime for a drug that had been illegal for more than 105 years will be a massive enterprise — from determining who is qualified to work in pot shops to setting potency limits on cannabis-infused candy and cookies. But none of that can happen until the Legislature finalizes the state’s new marijuana law, and the clock is ticking.
The November referendum legalized growing, buying, possessing, and using limited amounts of cannabis for adults 21 or over. It set a January 2018 time frame for retail pot shops to open. But, in the quiet week after Christmas, with no public hearings and no formal public notice, lawmakers delayed the likely opening date for recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts by half a year — to July 2018.
Possible changes that could come out of the Legislature include raising the tax on retail marijuana sales, clarifying language about how cities and towns can ban pot facilities, and changing the makeup of the agency that will oversee pot sales.
Under the voter-passed law, the pot tax rate is 3.75 percent — in addition to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, and municipalities can impose an additional 2 percent tax. That would mean a $100 pot brownie purchase could carry a state and local tax of $12.
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.
The Legislature could change that, giving more power to local elected officials.
And the ballot language calls for a three-person Cannabis Control Commission appointed by the treasurer with sole regulatory authority over the new industry. The treasurer’s office already houses the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which was a main reason the authors of the marijuana law placed the marijuana watchdog under the treasurer’s authority.
But some lawmakers are keen to change that structure because they feel it gives too much authority to one official. That could mean expanding the oversight board to five people with some members appointed by other statewide officials, such as the attorney general.
Beyond Massachusetts, voters in seven other states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. But the drug remains strictly forbidden under federal law.