Pubdate: Mon, 17 Jul 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Joshua Miller


Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and the majority
leader, spoke about the revisions to the marijuana law on Monday at
the State House.

The Massachusetts Legislature is expected to approve a broad overhaul
of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law this week after House
and Senate negotiators agreed on a bill Monday that would hike
marijuana taxes and change how communities can ban local pot shops.

But the compromise immediately raised the specter of a serious legal
challenge, and the bill drew a rebuke from the top lobbyist for cities
and towns who said, should it pass, most municipalities would have
trouble implementing the law.

The legislation raises the total tax on retail pot purchases to a
maximum of 20 percent, up from a maximum of 12 percent that was
spelled out in the ballot law. The legislation would also merge
oversight of the recreational and medical marijuana industries into a
five-person Cannabis Control Commission.

And it would maintain the right of adults 21 and older to grow, buy,
possess, and use limited quantities of cannabis. Retail sales are
expected to start in next July.

However, one key provision - which would change how some cities and
towns can ban local pot shops, farms, and manufacturers - may raise
state constitutional issues and trigger a challenge in court.

How would the new marijuana law rewrite affect your town?

The revised pot law unveiled by state legislators today gives both
voters and officials ways to limit marijuana establishments at the
local level.

The ballot question, approved by Massachusetts voters, gave the right
to ban or severely limit recreational marijuana establishments to
voters in each municipality. The House-passed version of the overhaul
would have given that power to local elected officials instead.

The legislative compromise splits the difference: In cities and towns
that voted "yes" on legalization last November, it would still require
a voter referendum to ban or severely limit marijuana shops. But in
cities and towns that voted "no," local elected officials would get to
make those decisions.

"Communities that voted 'no' - local officials there can pass an
ordinance or bylaw limiting the number of marijuana establishments
without going to the people, because the people have already spoken,"
said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who helped
draft the accord.

"For the 'yes' communities, which is 72 percent of the population in
the state, the rules remain exactly the same," he said. (A majority of
the state's municipalities, including Boston, Cambridge, Somerville,
and Brookline, voted in favor of the ballot measure last fall.)

On first glance, legal analysts said the approach could violate the
Massachusetts Constitution.

"That may create some constitutional issues in terms of equal
protection and equal applicability of our laws to every citizen of the
commonwealth," said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief
operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association. "Without
looking at it, on the surface, it appears there could be some grave
constitutional errors which would have to be clarified by our Supreme
Judicial Court."

And, outside lawyers said, lawmakers may be venturing onto shaky legal
ground by basing the new policy on town-by-town results of a statewide

Thomas O. Bean, a partner at Verrill Dana LLP who has successfully
argued 16 cases before the Supreme Judicial Court, said the provision,
on its face, is constitutionally concerning because "we are one

"Think about the larger issue: The Legislature passes a law that has
one provision for one set of cities and towns, and a different
provision for another set of cities and towns, based on a vote that no
one took," he said. "As a citizen of one city or town, I might argue
that the laws are not being equally applied to me and my neighbor in
another city or town."

But Legislators insisted that the language is constitutionally kosher,
and said it had been vetted by both chambers' top lawyers.

Meanwhile, the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association, which
represents cities and towns, had pressed hard for the House version of
the bill that would have put the power to ban pot shops in the hands
of local elected officials. Geoff Beckwith, the group's chief
executive and top lobbyist, expressed disappointment with the compromise.

"We believe that the conference committee version will be problematic
for a large number of communities because the local referendum process
is out of synch with the timing of local elections and zoning bylaws,"
he said in an e-mail.

"And while it is good that 91 cities and towns will have a workable
process-" he said, referring to those that voted against Question 4 -
"it is very unfortunate that the remaining 260 communities will face
ongoing problems that will make it very hard to implement the law smoothly."

The measure would increase the state marijuana tax to 10.75 percent,
up 7 percentage points from the 3.75 percent in the ballot measure. It
also pushes up the optional tax that cities and towns can impose on
pot purchases, from 2 percent to 3 percent. With the state's 6.25
percent sales tax, that means the maximum total tax on marijuana would
be 20 percent.

The ballot law gave most companies that held provisional and final
medical marijuana licenses by the end of last year an advantage in
expanding into recreational marijuana. But the compromise bill reduces
that industry head start.

The legislation would also make major adjustments to the Cannabis
Control Commission, the regulatory body that will police and regulate
the new industry.

While the ballot question set up a three-person commission appointed
by Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, the bill creates a five-person,
full-time commission appointed jointly by the treasurer, Governor
Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey.

The legislation also stiffens some mandates for the commission. For
example, it requires that the agency prohibit "the use of bright
colors, cartoon characters, and other features designed to appeal to
minors" in pot packaging - wording the ballot question lacked.

And it insists the commission impose very strict requirements on pot

The Democrat-controlled Legislature is set to weigh in on the
marijuana compromise in up-or-down votes this week. The bill cannot be
amended during that process.

If, as expected, the legislation is sent to Baker on Thursday, he will
have 10 days to act. He has been broadly supportive of efforts to
adjust the voter-passed law.

And, though he ran for office as a no-new-taxes Republican, he has
been open to raising the tax rate.

Advocates who wrote the measure expressed relief Monday and urged
Baker to sign it.
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MAP posted-by: Matt