House leaders abruptly yanked a controversial rewrite of the voter-approved recreational marijuana law Wednesday afternoon — just hours before it was scheduled to be debated by the full chamber.
“It will not be taken up tomorrow,” Speaker Robert A. DeLeo told reporters after breaking the news to the Democratic members of the House in a closed-door evening meeting. He cited “procedural issues” and “certain things we have to clear up,” without going into more detail.
“It’s important that, with a bill of this magnitude, that we try to get it right, or as close as right the first time. And so I’d rather do that than try to rush it through tomorrow,” he said.
The unusual move followed 24 hours of lacerating criticism from advocates and lawmakers who said the bill would have undermined the will of the 1.8 million voters who backed the legalization measure in November. They decried the higher pot tax it would have imposed — at least 28 percent — saying that rate would ensure the black market for marijuana remained.
DeLeo’s announcement immediately raised questions about whether lawmakers will be able to forge an agreement on a revised pot law by their self-imposed deadline of June 30 and send it to Governor Charlie Baker. DeLeo said the House would vote on a tweaked version of the bill next week and he expected lawmakers to meet the deadline.
In December, the Legislature delayed the opening of recreational retail stores by six months — to July 2018 — to give itself time to rewrite the ballot law. Failing to do so before next month could further delay the opening of pot shops.
Advocates and people in the cannabis industry cheered DeLeo’s move.
“This was a poorly conceived and poorly drafted bill. If we see a better bill come out because of this action from the speaker, we’ll be happy,” said Jim Borghesani, who managed communications for the ballot measure and represents the national pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
Jonathan Napoli, a cultivation consultant for a medical dispensary and the owner of Boston Gardener, a hydroponic and organic gardening supply store in Roxbury, said the bill being pulled is good news.
“It was flawed in many ways,” he said. “The tax rate, it just has to come down.”
And interviews with lawmakers Wednesday offered a glimpse at some of the reasons why the bill may have been pulled.
Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and a member of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said he is glad the House is taking more time to adjust the bill.
“What I look forward to being changed is the language that I feel is very heavy-handed to communities of color,” he said.
Specifically, Holmes cited the bill’s creation of two new enforcement authorities that he fears would “exacerbate the war on drugs just as you’re making marijuana legal.”
Another area of concern, he said, is the high tax rate, which he worries would leave the illicit market in place — or perhaps even encourage it to grow. And he expressed disappointment that there isn’t language removing past marijuana charges from people’s criminal records.
Finally, Holmes said, he wanted to make sure there are resources to help communities that were disproportionately affected by the “war on drugs.”
He said “by no means” was he the only representative to feel that way about those provisions.
Earlier Wednesday, the state Senate’s point person on marijuana policy, Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, blasted the House bill, saying it “directly assaults the will of the voters and is a prescription for increasing the illicit market.”
“This bill is fundamentally flawed,” Jehlen said, as the House chair of the committee, Representative Mark J. Cusack, sat next to her shaking his head.
The House bill, made public Tuesday night, would have raised the total recreational pot tax, now set at a maximum of 12 percent, to a mandatory 28 percent at the point of sale.
Jehlen and several outside lawyers said the bill’s language also imposed a 21.75 percent tax on wholesale transactions — such as pot growers who sell their product to retailers, costs that would inevitably be passed on to consumers. But House leaders said that was not the legislation’s intent.
And Cusack told reporters late Wednesday that, regarding the wholesale tax, “we are currently working on a fix, among other issues.”
Current law says that if municipal officials want to ban a particular type of recreational pot business — for example, marijuana cultivation facilities or a neighborhood cannabis store — or all retail pot establishments, they must get voters’ approval. Local officials would also need to hold a referendum if they want to sharply limit the number of marijuana shops in their jurisdictions.
But under the House bill, voters would have had no direct say on the issue. Instead, local elected officials would have had the ability to unilaterally limit or ban marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, testing hubs, and manufacturing sites for marijuana-infused products.
That drew reproach from several legislators who said it wrongly takes away voter input on local issues.
Ten members of the joint House-Senate committee on marijuana policy voted Wednesday to advance the bill out of committee with a favorable report. One lawmaker voted against advancing it, and six “reserved their rights,” meaning they declined to vote for or against advancing the measure.
But even one of the representatives who voted in favor of the procedural move expressed concern.
Representative Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, called the tax rate “detrimental” to a robust legal pot market and expressed worry about changing municipal control.
He said he hoped the bill could be amended on the House floor
“I will not at all hesitate to vote ‘no’ on the floor,” he said, “if this bill continues in the shape and the form that it is.”
It was pulled a few hours later.