A showdown is brewing in Massachusetts, with legislative deadlines for marijuana legalization looming and voters left wondering if lawmakers in the House and Senate will be able to get on the same page in time for their will to become law.
On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill aiming to end cannabis prohibition in the Commonwealth, an outcome the voters indicated their desire for last November when they approved the initial ballot question. The amended bill passed in the state Senate Thursday by a count of 30-5 and with far more support from legalization advocates than when the House passed a drastically modified piece of legislation, replacing much of what voters approved with remarkably different language and guidelines regarding taxes, local controls, and zoning among other points of contention.
“We are not starting from scratch,” Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) told colleagues Thursday morning. “We are starting from a law passed by the voters.” State Sen. Jehlen, Co-Chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee in Massachusetts, added in reference to the House bill, “We should not repeal and replace any of the referenda that have been passed, as others have recommended. We should amend and improve.”
While the House bill almost triples the voter-approved tax rate from 12 percent to 28 percent and removes the common voter’s direct power to control their local cannabis market, the Senate bill takes a more conservative approach to amending certain aspects of the ballot question. Whereas the House aimed to scrap most of the defining characteristics of the voter-approved Question 4, the state Senate set out to amend specific areas of concern while leaving the overall intentions of the law intact.
“This legislation sets up an improved governance structure for the oversight of the industry, ensures access to the market for communities who have been disproportionally affected by the war on drugs, and keeps the tax rate at a level that we hope will eliminate the black market,” Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg explained after the bill passed.
A 28 percent tax may seem like a great idea if you want to fill the Commonwealth checking account with haste, but what will stop a cannabis consumer from taking a short drive to neighboring states like Connecticut and Rhode Island that are both working diligently toward ending prohibition and opening retail markets of their own? Or worse yet, what will stop those consumers from texting their black market dealer in Massachusetts to avoid paying the 28 percent surcharge? The Massachusetts Senators recognize that there is an appropriate tax rate zone where both consumers feel comfortable paying a small fee for a safe and regulated industry and the state still collects enough revenue to sustain the market and maintain optimal public health and safety.
The two sides will have to convene and hammer out the differences in their contradictory bills before submitting one all encompassing solution to the governor for review by the state’s self-imposed deadline next Friday. Representatives from the Senate and House will now hold a conference committee this coming week to find common ground ahead of the cutoff so that recreational sales can begin when they are supposed to on July 1, 2018.
Cover Image Courtesy of Allie Beckett
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