Beacon Hill is considering making significant changes to the state’s marijuana laws for the first time since 2017, when the Legislature rewrote the 2016 voter-approved ballot measure that legalized the drug in Massachusetts.
Last week, lawmakers on several legislative committees, including the joint committee on cannabis policy, faced a deadline to kill or advance numerous proposed pot bills.
Which ideas got shuffled off to study (a nice way of saying “no”) and which are still in play? Here’s a look at the fate of seven key bills:
1. Stoned driving crackdown
Governor Charlie Baker put significant political muscle behind a proposal to crack down on stoned driving, holding several press conferences last year to promote the plan.
Under his bill, suspected stoned drivers would have lost their licenses for at least six months if they refused to take a biological test for marijuana — even though such tests can detect only recent use, not active impairment. It also called for increasing the number of police officers trained to recognize drug impairment, requiring courts to consider them expert witnesses, and making it easier for officers to cite drivers for having open containers of marijuana in their vehicles.
Baker introduced the bill in January 2019. He renewed his push last October, after the Cannabis Control Commission gave preliminary approval to licensed “social consumption” venues, or pot cafes, where patrons could buy and consume marijuana on site. While the commission’s plan for a social consumption pilot program in a handful of municipalities can’t be implemented until state law changes (more on that in a moment), Baker insisted Massachusetts shouldn’t move forward on social consumption unless and until his stoned driving crackdown was implemented.
But the pressure didn’t work. The Legislature’s joint judiciary committee last week assigned the bill to study, effectively spiking it for the remainder of the current legislative session. Baker’s bill had faced strong opposition from civil liberties advocates, who doubted the state faced a stoned driving crisis and feared it would jail innocent drivers based on flawed science.
A spokesman for Baker said he “looks forward to continuing to work with the Legislature on this important issue as the session continues.”
2. Pot cafés
The Legislature’s cannabis committee, co-chaired by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Representative David Rogers, advanced a bill last week that would allow local officials to approve social consumption businesses in their cities and towns without holding a community-wide referendum, as required under the current law. The bill now proceeds to the full Legislature.
The bill, from state Senator Julian Cyr, is necessary if the commission hopes to move forward with its social consumption pilot program. That’s because Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who helps oversee local elections, has said that the existing language requiring a referendum is legally unworkable.
3. Worker protections
A bill that would protect employees from being fired for using marijuana during their off hours remains stalled in the Legislature’s judiciary committee, which last week requested an extension of the deadline for issuing a recommendation on the measure until May 12.
The bill, introduced by state Senator Jason Lewis, would ban employers from summarily dismissing (or declining to hire) workers solely because they flunked a drug test for cannabis metabolites. Companies that rely on federal funding and workers who perform safety-critical roles, such as operating heavy equipment, would be exempt.
Current law gives employers wide latitude to fire workers for using marijuana, even if there’s no evidence the drug affected their performance or that they were impaired on the job. The reforms proposed by Lewis followed public outrage over several high-profile cases in which companies fired productive, well-liked employees for failing marijuana tests following workplace accidents.
The plan faces opposition from major business associations.
4. Host community agreements
A proposal by Rogers to crack down on municipal demands for large payments from marijuana operators in exchange for local approval has advanced farther than any other cannabis legislation this session, flying through the full House last week on a 121-33 vote. It now awaits action in the Senate.
The bill would give the state Cannabis Control Commission authority to regulate host community agreements, invalidating provisions in the contracts between operators and municipalities that violate legal limits on their value and length. It answers longstanding complaints from marijuana license applicants and advocates that cities and towns routinely seek excessive sums, slowing down the debut of pot shops and freezing local entrepreneurs with less money out of the recreational sector. The Massachusetts Municipal Association has strongly opposed the measure, arguing it encroaches on local authority.
One factor putting urgency behind the bill: An investigation by US Attorney Andrew Lelling into the pacts.
While investors cash in on legal marijuana, some Massachusetts residents remain saddled with criminal records for possessing the drug when it was illegal, making it difficult to find work and housing.
While recent criminal justice reforms make it possible for some past marijuana crimes to be sealed, very few appear to have taken advantage of the cumbersome process for doing so.
A proposal by state Representative Chynah Tyler would have automatically expunged records of certain marijuana crimes, but the judiciary committee declined to advance it. However, the committee did approve another bill, from Lewis, that would allow residents to request expungement of those records. It would also require the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to conduct a public outreach campaign aimed at notifying eligible residents that they can clear their records.
6. Task force
A proposal by state Representative Hannah Kane to create a multi-agency task force that would crack down on unlicensed marijuana sellers died in the cannabis committee last week. Proponents had argued the bill would allow information sharing between police and cannabis regulators, while giving authorities the option to punish illegal delivery services and the like with civil fines instead of criminal charges. But advocates were skeptical, saying Massachusetts should first focus on making it easier for illicit dealers to go legit.
7. Hemp and CBD
Massachusetts hemp farmers are cheering the cannabis committee’s decision last week to recommend passage of a bill from state Representative Mark Cusack that would fully legalize edibles containing hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD. The nascent industry suffered a disastrous 2019 season, after state agricultural officials announced licensed hemp companies were banned from making such products because of changes to federal law.