Pubdate: Thu, 22 Jun 2017
Source: Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Author: Brian Lee


On the heels of a House rewrite Wednesday of the state's adult-use
recreational marijuana law, approved by voters in November, local
reaction has been mixed.

Increasing the tax rate on marijuana sales from 12 percent to 28
percent and allowing local governing boards to ban or limit pot stores
without asking local voters are among the more significant changes in
the House bill.

On Thursday, the debate over reshaping the law shifted to the state
Senate, where a more modest set of revisions to existing law appeared
headed for passage.

Unlike the House version, the Senate bill would not repeal the current
law, but instead keep it in place and make a number of changes in the
way both recreational and medical marijuana would be regulated.

Action by the Senate would set the stage for negotiations between the
House and Senate on a compromise bill. Legislative leaders have
imposed a July 1 deadline to deliver a bill to Republican Gov. Charlie

Although the issue is moot in Southbridge, which earlier this month
voted to prohibit marijuana shops from doing business in town,
Southbridge Councilor Kristen Auclair expressed concern about allowing
councilors or town meetings to decide if a community should host
marijuana a business.

Matt Allen, field director for the American Civil Liberties Union of
Massachusetts, said the House made significant improvements to the

But there are still outstanding issues that remain unaddressed, he
said. The ACLU is hopeful the Senate bill will address those concerns.

The ACLU supported the initiative in November to bring the marijuana
market out of the shadows and, in doing so, eliminate the harms of
criminalization, the group said. More than 600 people are still being
arrested for marijuana possession each year in Massachusetts, creating
barriers to housing, employment, education and adoption, the ACLU said
before the November election.

The ACLU also said people of color are three times more likely to be
arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though rates of
marijuana use are the same across the races.

Mr. Allen, a former Worcester resident, said the ACLU was pleased that
the House bill added language charging the Cannabis Control Commission
with developing programming and licensing goals to encourage
participation by communities of color, women and veterans.

He said the ACLU would still like to see language that stipulates that
a past conviction for a marijuana offense won't bar people from owning
marijuana establishments or working in them.

To the ongoing issue of the tax rate, Mr. Allen said the intent of the
initiative was to drive consumers from illicit markets and that
shouldn't be undermined by a high tax rate.

The House approved the measure 126-28.

But state Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn, who voted in favor of the
revisions, said there “wasn't a lot messed with in this
bill.” He said the increased tax rate addresses concerns about
increased substance abuse.

He asserted that perhaps “the big marijuana companies that put
a lot of money into the ballot question had things phrased a certain
way … so they could make more money.” Mr. Frost said
states such as Colorado and Washington have seen an increase in
underage marijuana users since they legalized adult-use marijuana, and
the House installed protection for that.

Mr. Frost said the rewrite also contains protection against the
potential for the marijuana industry to influence appointments to the
Cannabis Control Commission, which originally called for three members
appointed by the state treasurer. The revision calls for the
treasurer, governor and attorney general to each appoint a member.
>From there, three sitting members would choose two other members, for
a five-member commission.

The lawmaker said he was also concerned about giving communities
enhanced local control on zoning, which was addressed in the House
revision. Unlike the medical marijuana law, which had controls about
situating businesses near schools or churches, the recreational
marijuana law contained no such language, which Mr. Frost said he
found problematic.

Mr. Frost said he received some correspondence Thursday, mostly from
outside the district, calling the House action a repeal. He disputed
that characterization.

The Auburn lawmaker said the main reasons why people voted for the
ballot question so that they could purchase marijuana from licensed
businesses, and for individuals to be able to possess, use and grow
cannabis are still intact in this House version of the bill.

The legislator said he reserves the right to change his mind after a
final version of the law is presented.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Peter J. Durant, R-Spencer, said he probably
could have gone in either direction, but voted against the House's
rewrite of the law.

“It definitely needed to be fixed,” Mr. Durant said of
the ballot question. “I just don't think the bill did a very
good job of doing that."

Mr. Durant was chiefly concerned about setting a 28 percent tax rate
without knowing how much revenue the industry would draw. Yes, it's a
new industry, he said. But there was no study on regulatory structure

"So we're just sort of raising taxes, hoping it's going to cover what
we have to do," he said.

 From a legislator's perspective, Mr. Durant said, one can always raise
taxes later if needed. But it's unlikely the Legislature would ever
lower taxes in this environment, he asserted.

Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said he looks forward to knowing what the
final rules will be.

He said he was against the measure in November, but noted that "the
people of Worcester passed it, so I'm going to implement it," while
hoping for local control so that pot stores aren't on every corner.

Mr. Petty said he'd prefer that only cities and towns that choose to
host marijuana stores would receive revenue from the industry.

The marijuana law passed 54 percent to 46 percent in Massachusetts in

Earlier this year, the governor signed a bill delaying retail
marijuana sales six months, to July 2018.
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