15 Massachusetts Lawmakers Back Bill That Would Legalize And Tax Marijuana

Mar 13, 2015

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Following earlier efforts, 15 Massachusetts lawmakers are throwing their support behind a bill that would legalize and tax the sale of marijuana in the Bay State.

Under the legislation titled "An Act To Regulate and Tax The Cannabis Industry", people 21 years or older would be allowed to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana. Under a so-called “Cannabis Commission,” growing, testing and retail locations would be regulated and require licenses. Much like alcohol regulation, local licensing authorities would also be established. Northampton activist Dick Evans is one of the lawyers involved in the legislation.

“The point of this legislation is first to eliminate the black market in marijuana and secondly to protect the public safety and health,” Evans said. “To protect teens, minors and young people and  raise new revenue for the commonwealth.”

Democratic State Representative David Rogers and Senator Patricia Jehlen are leading the legislative effort. The bill has been sent to the Legislature’s joint judiciary committee. The idea has the backing of the Marijuana Policy Project, or MPP, a national group involved in similar efforts across the country. Matt Simon is the organization’s New England director.

“Massachusetts should legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use,” Simon said. “Massachusetts residents are spending hundreds of millions of dollars currently on marijuana in an illicit market and this would regulate it. Instead of giving it to criminals and drug-trafficking organizations it would go into Massachusetts businesses that employee Massachusetts residents and pay taxes and follow the laws of the state.”

The MPP says it will pursue a ballot question in 2016 if the legislation doesn’t pass. In recent years voters approved two pro-marijuana ballot questions, de-criminalizing possession and allowing for medical marijuana dispensaries. The latter sent state government, mainly the public health department, scrambling to set up systems to regulate that industry. Evans says the Cannabis Commission would be able to get in front of the issue.

“I’m not sure we can trust an existing state agency to implement such a new law and that was the idea behind cannabis commission,” Evans said. “To put people on it who know something about this subject and are not overwhelmed.”

Alluding to a 2016 ballot question, in a statement, Senator Jehlen says if marijuana is going to be legalized, the laws should be crafted through an open and deliberative process. The Massachusetts Medical Society has opposed medical marijuana and without taking a close look at the current legislation spokesman Rick Gulla says the society has the same feeling toward recreational use.

“You have issues of occupational safety, issues around people driving motor vehicles, but with particular regard to youth there is the issue of its effects on brain development,” said Gulla.

Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project says not regulating cannabis is causing greater issues.

“I would say that prohibition raises a larger public health and safety concern,” Simon said. “Illicit drug dealers don’t check IDs. Illicit drug dealers might sell harder drugs to marijuana users. If we sell marijuana in marijuana only stores it’ll be regulated. The state can actually have some control over this substance. We call it a controlled drug and yet under our current system we have absolutely no control over it.”

Evans says the legislation would also legalize “Cannabis cafes” public places where people could use marijuana.

“We would be the first state to authorize cannabis cafes if the legislation were enacted,” Evans said. “It seems to make sense. The important thing is these would be like coffee shops where would not be served. So probably they’d be close to what we know as coffee shops in Amsterdam.”

Evans says Colorado, one of four states where recreational marijuana use is legal, has generated $75 million in tax revenue since passing the law, not including secondary revenue like building costs.