Pot advocates decry House’s plans to change legalization law

FILE - This April 15, 2017 file photo shows marijuana plants for sale at the ShowGrow dispensary a medical marijuana provider in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles officials are releasing proposed regulations for governing the emerging commercial marijuana industry in the city. The release Thursday, June 8, 2017, sets in motion a 60-day public comment period prior to further action by the City Council. Councilman Paul Koretz says release of the draft ordinance is a crucial step to prepare for the Jan. 1 statewide legalization of cannabis. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Richard Vogel/Associated Press

Mellow they were not.

Massachusetts advocates who legalized recreational marijuana by ballot question seven months ago savaged a House bill that would rewrite the pot law, saying Monday that it “repeals the will of the voters.” They instead endorsed a more modest Senate effort to adjust the referendum law.

Advocates decried the higher marijuana tax rate the House legislation would impose; argued “punitive” background-check requirements for any vendor helping a pot business — from a lawyer to a snowplow driver — would make the retail system unworkable; and said giving municipal officials, instead of local voters, the power to ban cannabis shops was anti-democratic.


“The hostile approach that they take to setting up the marijuana industry is just not workable in any form, so we don’t want to see the House bill move forward,” said Jim Borghesani, who managed communications for the ballot campaign, “Yes on 4,” and who represents the national pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

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Representative Mark J. Cusack, who authored the House bill, declined to address the substance of the criticism. But he zinged the advocates for signing on with the Senate.

“They’ve been adamant that they got [the ballot question] right, that it was the gospel according to ‘Yes on 4,’ that there should not be any changes to it,” he said.

He caustically encouraged the group and its leaders to “figure out their message.”

Cusack also said Monday that the House and Senate were about 80 percent on the same page.


Both the House and the Senate plans would leave some fundamental aspects of the ballot question in place. Growing, buying, possessing, and using limited quantities of marijuana by adults 21 and older would remain legal. Both foresee retail pot stores opening in July 2018.

And both bills would deny Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg unilateral oversight of the cannabis industry. The governor and attorney general would also get to appoint some of the commissioners who will write regulations on everything from neon signs in pot shop windows to the warning labels on marijuana-infused cookies.

But the advocates’ denunciation Monday underscored the tension over pot policy between the two legislative chambers as they hurtle toward a June 30 deadline to get a compromise bill to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.

The Senate bill would leave in place the voter-passed maximum pot tax rate of 12 percent, while the House would ramp it up to a mandatory 28 percent.

The Senate’s legislation would keep in place the current law, which says that if municipal officials want to stop a particular type of recreational establishment — for example, marijuana cultivation facilities — or all recreational pot establishments, they must get voters’ approval. Local officials 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, local elected officials would have the unilateral ability to limit or ban marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, testing hubs, and manufacturing sites for marijuana-infused products.

The House bill would also give regulators the power to mandate that anyone who has a “business association of any kind” with a pot shop, grower, or the like has to undergo a background check — a divergence from the ballot law.

The Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy voted two versions of a pot law rewrite out of committee Monday afternoon. The 160-member House of Representatives is set to debate, amend, and vote on one version on Wednesday. The 40-member Senate is poised to vote later this week or next week on its version.

The differences will be hashed out in a secret conference committee with members of both chambers.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Cusack, cochairman of the marijuana committee, said he is open to compromising on the tax rate.

His cochair, Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, has also expressed openness to some tax rate adjustment.

But Cusack said the thorniest point of contention between the chambers may be who has the power to ban pot shops in each city or town: voters or their elected officials.

After all, he said, there is not much middle ground.

“Tax rates are negotiable. They come up. We come down,” he said.

“But the ballot referendum and local officials, I think that it’s kind of black-and-white on that one. So trying to come somewhere between that — Is there really a hybrid model you could offer that encompasses both? I don’t know.”

The governor told reporters he has “no doubt” that a compromise bill “will get to my desk before the end of the month.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at