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Baker approves changes to legal pot sales, pledges fast roll-out

Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill on Friday.
Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill on Friday.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker on Friday approved significant changes to the recreational marijuana ballot initiative that Massachusetts voters passed last year, launching the state into a new era of legalized pot commerce.

Baker campaigned against the marijuana initiative last year, and said little publicly while his staff negotiated changes with state legislators over the past few months. During a bill-signing ceremony at the State House Friday, he reiterated his opposition to legal marijuana, but said he was nonetheless committed to carrying out voters’ will.

“I don’t support this — I worry terribly about what the consequences over time will be,” the governor said, referencing unnamed “pitfalls” he said other states with legal marijuana have experienced.

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“But look,” he added, “the people voted [for] this, and I think it’s really important that we put the program in place and deliver a workable, safe, productive recreational marijuana market for them.”

The legislation signed by Baker Friday retains key aspects of the original ballot measure, including allowing adults 21 and older to grow, buy, possess, and use limited quantities of cannabis. But it raises the total tax on retail pot purchases from a maximum of 12 percent to 20 percent and merges oversight of the recreational and medical cannabis markets, among other tweaks.

The law’s passage kicks off a rulemaking and licensing process officials hope will see the first dispensaries open their doors on July 1, 2018. Elected state officials must now meet a series of tight deadlines for appointing pot regulators and drafting detailed rules for the industry.

Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg are each required to appoint five people to an unpaid cannabis advisory board by Tuesday, Aug. 1. By Sept. 1, they must appoint the five paid members of a newly-created Cannabis Control Commission, or CCC, which will have broad authority over the growing, processing, testing, and sale of marijuana.

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“It’s important that we get started on this,” Baker said. “We have a very short time frame... [and] a lot of work to do between now and next July to get this thing stood up.”

Legal experts have warned the new system for giving municipalities control over marijuana businesses may violate the Massachusetts Constitution and is ripe for a court challenge. And advocates are worried the Legislature provided too little money and left too little time for pot sales to begin on schedule.

“The only way the deadlines will be met is if they provide sufficient funding to the CCC,” said Jim Borghesani, who directed communications for Question 4 and represents the national pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

Lawmakers have authorized $2 million for the new commission, Borghesani noted, far less than the $10 million requested earlier by Goldberg. Baker said the state is prepared to put up more money if necessary.

Under the original ballot initiative Goldberg would have been the state’s top marijuana regulator, but the new law requires her to share control with Baker and Healey. Goldberg was conspicuously absent at the signing ceremony, though her office announced her picks for the advisory board Friday.

In an interview, the treasurer said she is concerned the short timeline means any missteps will further delay the opening of pot shops, which the Legislature already postponed by six months.

“It will take 150 percent of the CCC’s time, and things will need to go very well in order to hit the July 1 deadline,” Goldberg said. “I, myself, wanted to get going in January so we could meet those deadlines.”

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She also complained she was “completely left out” of the legislative rewrite. Mark Cusack, a House representative who helped forge the law, retorted, “she excluded herself,” saying the treasurer refused for a time to meet with lawmakers.

“We had a million people screaming at us about this,” Cusack said. “You’ve got to insert yourself into the process.”

The terse exchange was an echo of the contentious, eight-month political saga in which legislators worked mostly behind closed doors to reconcile two vastly different approaches to marijuana commerce: the House approach that would have imposed strict regulations on the industry, and a more modest measure from the state Senate.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@Dan_Adams86.