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Massachusetts House To Debate Changes To State's Pot Law

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      A divided legislative committee today voted on a bill that would make extensive changes to the voter-approved marijuana law in Massachusetts.

      The legislation to overhaul the results of the 2016 ballot initiative on recreational marijuana was sent from the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy to the House, with several committee members from that chamber vowing to introduce amendments when debate begins Thursday.

      State Senator James Welch of West Springfield said he and several other Senate members on the committee abstained from voting on the bill.

      "We have to start the process and get the bill out of committee," said Welch. " I think when the bill comes over to the Senate we will have our own ideas about how to move forward."

      Welch said there are  concerns that the 28 percent total tax rate on retail marijuana sales contained in the draft House legislation is excessive and will result in a continuing black market for marijuana after regulated retail sales begin next year. 

       The voter-approved law set the tax rate at 12 percent, but critics say that won’t bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of government regulation and local public health and safety expenses.

      There are also objections to a provision in the legislation that would allow local elected officials, rather than local voters, to prohibit marijuana businesses, or limit the number of retail stores, in a municipality.

       With many differences clearly still remaining on Beacon Hill over how to respond to last November’s vote to legalize marijuana, Welch said the goal is to get a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by July 1st.

     "We understand we are under a very heavy time crunch," said Welch.  " We want to do the legislation in a way that takes into account public health and safety concerns but is respectful of the voters and their will."

      Possession of an ounce of marijuana is now legal in Massachusetts, and up to a dozen plants can be grown in a household.  But retail sales won’t be allowed until July 2018 to give the state time to set up regulations and a bureaucracy to oversee the industry.

      Marijuana legalization advocates were furious over some of the proposed changes to the law outlined in the draft bill circulated a day before Wednesday’s scheduled committee meeting.

      Dick Evans, a Northampton attorney who chaired the political committee that backed the successful referendum campaign to legalize marijuana, believes many of the sweeping changes contained in the initial House bill won’t come to pass.

      " I think they sent something up the flag pole and are waiting to see who salutes it," said Evans. " A trial baloon."

      Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the marijuana law is flawed and the legislature must fix it.

     "The legislature really must make changes to ensure the new law is implemented in a way that not  only protects the municipal and state interests but allows for the responsible build out of the commercial marijuana industry," said Beckwith.

       1.8 million people voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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