Mass. House votes to make major changes to pot law
The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed an expansive rewrite of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law Wednesday night — a bill that would alter major aspects of the referendum backed by 1.8 million voters just seven months ago.
The 126-to-28 vote sets up a showdown with the Senate, which is expected Thursday to greenlight a much more modest adjustment of the recreational pot law.
The House bill would sharply raise total pot taxes to a mandatory 28 percent, from a maximum of 12 percent in the ballot question. It would also give municipal officials, instead of local voters, the power to ban cannabis shops and farms from their communities.
Discussion of the bill and proposed amendments to it unfolded mostly in secret over several hours Wednesday afternoon and evening — typical procedure in recent years for the top-down House, which is tightly controlled by Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
Several amendments to the bill were bundled together by House leaders, effectively denying legislators the opportunity to vote on each one individually. That, too, is common for major pieces of legislation. But given that the bill in question Wednesday was a rewrite of a voter-passed law, the practice was particularly notable.
Last week, amid biting criticism from advocates, the public, and other lawmakers — as well as what House leaders acknowledged were mistakes in the drafting of the bill — DeLeo withdrew a version of the legislation from a scheduled vote.
But in its broadest outlines, the legislation that passed Wednesday remained similar to the original House bill and still drew the ire of advocates.
“This bill is wrong on taxes, wrong on local control, weak on social justice, and irresponsible on regulatory efficiency. Our hope is that the Senate bill prevails in the coming conference committee,” said Jim Borghesani, who directed communications for the ballot measure and represents the national pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
Among other changes from the ballot law, the House’s legislation would take unilateral oversight of the cannabis industry away from Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, instead creating a commission appointed by several elected officials to police the new industry.
It would also merge oversight of the recreational and medical cannabis markets, establish stringent requirements for testing and pot packaging, and mandate sharp restrictions on marijuana advertising.
Growing, buying, possessing, and using limited quantities of marijuana by adults 21 and older would remain legal under the House plan.
“From day one, in all of our efforts, the overarching theme has been getting this right for the Commonwealth,” said Representative Mark J. Cusack, the House chairman of the Legislature’s committee on marijuana, and author of the House bill. “It is often said that you cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and what you have before you is a good omnibus bill that works for the consumers and the industry, but, more importantly, the people of the Commonwealth.”
Speaking on the House floor, he said the legislation respects the will of the voters “who wanted a safe and regulated market,” while adding “common sense” public safety protections and streamlining bureaucracy so that retail sales can begin by July 2018.
After the bill’s passage, DeLeo praised the legislation.
“This bill reflects a commitment to legalizing adult-use marijuana while upholding our duty to ensure safety and effective management,” he said in a statement.
“The House placed a premium on health and safety,” he said, emphasizing product testing and security measures.
Representatives had filed more than 100 amendments, on everything from earmarking some pot tax revenue for substance-abuse education in public schools to changing the limits on how many retail store licenses a person can hold.
Black and Latino lawmakers had sharply criticized the original House bill, saying it watered down language in the ballot question aimed at ensuring that communities disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs can fully participate in the new legal industry.
In response, the House adopted an amendment restoring that ballot language. Legislators also added wording that would mandate regulators “adopt diversity licensing goals that provide meaningful participation of communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition and enforcement, including minority business enterprises.”
Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, who had been critical of the underlying bill, said he was encouraged by Wednesday’s changes. “I think that the bill was substantially improved with the equity language,” he said after the measure’s passage.
Among the other amendments passed Wednesday: measures to boost local Massachusetts pot farmers, clarify oversight of the hemp industry, refine restrictions against pot shops near schools, and mandate marijuana regulators create energy and environmental standards for marijuana farms, which can consume vast amounts of power and water.
The original House bill allowed regulators “to conduct warrantless searches” of pot shops and farms, wording that enraged legalization advocates. But an amendment Wednesday evening changed that language to “regulatory inspections.”
The Senate is set to take up its own version of the legislation Thursday. A draft version of that bill diverged from the House one on several fronts.
It would leave the lower tax rate in place and maintain that local voters, not elected officials, decide whether to ban pot shops from their city or town.
The advocates who proposed the legalization ballot question have formally endorsed the Senate measure, while decrying the House effort as fundamentally flawed.
“We need to make sure this bill is killed!” said Will Luzier, who served as the referendum’s campaign manager, at an anti-House bill rally in Boston Wednesday.
After the Senate passes its version, the two chambers will try to reconcile differences in a closed-door conference committee with a handful of senators and representatives.
But they won’t have much time. Legislators face a self-imposed June 30 deadline for sending a bill to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk so that retail pot shops can open, as expected, by July 2018.
It will probably take a new pot oversight agency at least one year to get off the ground and begin vetting and approving recreational licenses, experts say.
So, unless Massachusetts bureaucracy moves with amazing alacrity, it would be very difficult to change many key aspects of the law after next month, if retail stores are still to open in summer 2018.
Already, in December, with no public hearings and no formal public notice, lawmakers changed the likely opening date of retail pot shops from January to July 2018. But they insist they won’t delay recreational marijuana sales any further.