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Behind closed doors, lawmakers work on plan to rewrite pot law

(Shutterstock/Doug Shutter)

The fate of marijuana legalization, enshrined in law by about 1.8 million Massachusetts voters, is now in the hands of a half-dozen lawmakers meeting in secret.

Those legislators’ first action on Monday was to kick out members of the news media, close the door, and begin their deliberations to reconcile fundamentally different Senate and House rewrites of the ballot question that legalized adult recreational marijuana’s use and sale.

“We’re going to ask the press to leave,” said Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, the Senate’s point person on pot policy.

“Don’t take it personally,” House majority leader Ronald Mariano told TV, newspaper, wire service, and radio reporters after the conference committee of three representatives and three senators had voted to close the meeting.

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Hashing out differences between House and Senate bills in secret has long been the norm at the State House. But keeping deliberations about how to rewrite a voter-passed law hidden is notable, even by Beacon Hill’s opaque standards.

Both the Senate and House are expected to rubber-stamp the final agreement — if there is one — and send it to the governor’s desk.

Growing, buying, possessing, and using limited quantities of marijuana by adults 21 and older would remain legal under the plans passed by both the House and Senate last week.

And both bills would end Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg’s unilateral oversight of the cannabis industry, spreading the power to appoint pot regulators to the governor and attorney general, too.

But the differences are substantial.

The House plan would increase the total tax rate on retail pot sales from a maximum of 12 percent under the referendum to a mandatory 28 percent. The Senate plan would leave the 12 percent rate in place.

The House bill would give municipal officials, instead of local voters, the power to ban pot shops and farms in their municipalities.

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The Senate bill would leave that power with local voters, as the ballot question did.

And the Senate plan provides mechanisms for sealing and expunging certain marijuana-related criminal records. The House plan has no such measures.

Legislative officials hope to send a compromise bill to Governor Charlie Baker by Friday, as promised.

Responding to a question from a reporter on Monday, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said that, for the most part, the public will be “served very well” by legislators ironing out differences on the ballot law rewrite in secret.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg did not directly answer the question.

“There’s robust debate in the committee when they’re hearing the bill. And then there’s robust debate as the bill moves through the legislative process,” the Amherst Democrat said. “This stage of the process is usually closed so that the members may dig down deep and move as quickly as possible. And you’ll see the result of it. And we’ll be held accountable based on our votes on the final package.”

In December, with no public hearings and no formal public notice, a few lawmakers passed a measure to delay the likely opening date for recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts by half a year — from January to July 2018. They delayed in order to give themselves extra time to rewrite the voter-passed law.

It is widely expected that a new pot oversight agency will take at least one year to get off the ground and begin vetting and approving licenses. That’s a timeframe in line with those in other states where retail recreational marijuana sales have begun. And that’s why lawmakers meeting the June 30 deadline to get a bill to Baker is seen as so important.

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The Senate members of the conference committee are Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat and longtime legalization supporter who cochairs the Legislature’s marijuana committee; William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, former prosecutor, and former defense attorney who was one of the few other legislators to support the legalization ballot question; and Richard J. Ross, a Wrentham Republican who opposed the pot referendum, but went to Colorado in early 2016 with other senators to learn more about the issue.

The House members of the conference committee are Mariano, a Quincy Democrat close to DeLeo (the speaker strongly opposed and publicly campaigned against the ballot question); Representative Mark J. Cusack, a Braintree Democrat and cochair of the marijuana committee, and author of the original House bill; and Representative Hannah Kane, Republican of Shrewsbury, who campaigned to defeat the legalization measure.

At the meeting, the six didn’t say much before the doors were closed. After reporters shuffled out, legislative staffers worked to quickly seal off the deliberations.

And having been dismissed to a State House hallway, WBUR reporter Steve Brown placed his microphone next to the threshold to capture the loud thud as the door slammed shut.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.

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