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Mass. Senate passes marijuana bill

The Senate proposal — which will be amended over the course of Thursday’s debate — would leave the tax rate and local control provisions on marijuana from the ballot question in place.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press/File 2014

The Massachusetts Senate passed a bill Thursday making targeted adjustments to the voter-mandated marijuana legalization law — but differing starkly from a more extensive replacement measure approved by the House just a day earlier.

Senators voted 30-5 in favor of their version, which now heads to a time-pressured conference committee with the House. Legislative leaders have vowed to send a bill to Governor Charlie Baker by next Friday to allow retail shops to open by July 2018.

Unlike the House, which mandates a 28 percent total tax rate on marijuana, the Senate would preserve the 12 percent maximum levy voters chose when they voted for the law last November.


“We are not starting from scratch,” Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who cochairs the marijuana policy committee, told colleagues Thursday morning. “We are starting from a law passed by the voters.”

Jehlen added, “We should not repeal and replace any of the referenda that have been passed, as others have recommended. We should amend and improve.”

Advocates of the new law, after ripping the House for snubbing the will of the 1.8 million voters who supported the referendum, cheered the Senate version.

Michael Cutler, an attorney and member of the drafting committee for the Question 4 ballot measure that passed last year, said that, while attention has fixed largely on tax, local control, and social justice provisions of the bill, “a fundamental difference” more clearly divides the House and Senate.

“Those focuses miss the differences between the House bill, which is ‘repeal and replace’ . . . and the Senate bill, which is simply tweaking Question 4, the existing law,” said Cutler, a longtime advocate for marijuana policy reform.

Taking a far lighter hand to the law than did the House, the Senate retained the underlying law’s stipulation that voters hold the power to ban pot shops in their city or town. The House hands the power to local officials.Under both versions, using, possessing, and growing limited amounts of pot will still be legal. Both also combine oversight of the recreational and medical marijuana sectors.


“This legislation sets up an improved governance structure for the oversight of the industry, ensures access to the market for communities who have been disproportionally affected by the war on drugs, and keeps the tax rate at a level that we hope will eliminate the black market,” Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said in a statement released after the vote.

Jehlen said the House’s higher tax rate could prompt consumers to drive to other states with lower rates. In Maine, for instance, voters have approved a 10 percent tax on recreational marijuana, though lawmakers there could still adjust that.

She hopes a relatively low tax in Massachusetts would also make legal marijuana attractive enough that customers would no longer buy from illegal dealers. “We’re hoping to put the local dealer out of business or at least make him move into the legal market,” she said.

Attention will now turn toward the as-yet-unnamed conference committee, where the two chambers’ negotiators have a compressed window of just over a week to meet their self-imposed deadline. As recently as Monday, Baker said he had “no doubt” the bill would reach his desk by June 30.

The House and Senate have done little to hide their disagreements over how best to refine the legalization law, and senators in both parties Thursday issued floor remarks about respecting the will of the voters that could have been read as thinly masked swipes at their counterparts on the other side of the capitol.


Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said lawmakers owed voters “fidelity to what they have ordained by their vote.”

Several senators said they wanted to avoid what has happened in other states, where retail shops have clustered in low-income communities. Like some counterparts in the House, several senators said they wanted the bill to create protections for such communities and those of color.

Jehlen said the version she brought to the floor sought to “remedy the damage to people in communities that have been damaged by the drug war.”

Jehlen also recited a laundry list of times that the public had evinced support for expanded access to marijuana and lawmakers failed to respond. Each time, she said, voters then pressed their case at the ballot box: first with decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in 2008, then medicinal marijuana in 2012, and finally last fall with legalization.

Thursday’s session stretched over 10 hours, punctuated by long recesses. Senators did not vote to pass the legislation until after 9 p.m.

One amendment adopted by the Senate decrees that any record of a marijuana-related offense that is no longer consider a crime would be eligible to be sealed. As the bill neared passage, the Senate on a voice vote added an amendment allowing courts to expunge offenders’ Class D possession records. Another established penalties for adults who provide marijuana or related products to minors.


Senators batted back an effort by Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, to preserve majority control of the Cannabis Control Commission for state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. The House stripped Goldberg of majority control and the Senate’s version followed suit.

Despite Eldridge’s exhortation that his amendment would provide “more transparency and accountability,” the Senate rejected it on a voice vote, meaning no senator was on the record. Goldberg, a Brookline Democrat, has publicly criticized legislators’ maneuver to diminish her authority.

Due to a $23 million renovation of their chamber, senators are holding sessions in a State House auditorium, where the acoustics sometimes rendered the debate difficult to hear.

A visibly exasperated Rosenberg urged members in the late afternoon, after an extended recess had stretched past two hours, to quiet down, and reminded the lawmakers that they are in the first year of a two-year legislative session.

“You really have to help us here or we’re never getting out of here. And, by the way, we have another year in this room. Knock yourselves out.”

Joshua Miller contributed to this report. O’Sullivan can be reached at