A bill to overhaul the voter-approved marijuana law in Massachusetts is on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk. With his expected signature, the clock will start ticking toward legal retail marijuana sales in Massachusetts beginning in less than one year.
After struggling for weeks to strike a compromise between the House and Senate re-writes of the marijuana law, and missing a self-imposed July 1st deadline, the legislature approved a bill that sets taxes on cannabis sales higher than what voters approved and changes how municipalities can ban, or limit the number of, pot shops.
The Senate vote was 32-6 and the House approved it 136-11.
Democratic Senator James Welch of West Springfield, a member of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, who took a fact-finding trip to Colorado last year to study the marijuana industry there, praised the bill.
"Both branches of the legislature can be proud of the product we are putting out today," said Welch.
The legislature voted to raise the total tax on marijuana purchases to 20 percent, including a 3 percent local option tax. The top tax rate in the voter-approved law was 12 percent, with a 2 percent local levy.
The bill also changes how cities and towns can ban or restrict marijuana businesses. The voter-approved law required a local referendum, which the Senate kept in place. The House bill handed the control to local elected officials.
Under the final compromise bill, cities and towns where voters approved marijuana legalization last November will have to hold a voter referendum to ban or limit commercial marijuana operations. In communities where voters rejected Question 4, local elected officials can make all the decisions.
The bill creates a five-member full time Cannabis Control Commission inside the office of the State Treasurer to regulate and oversee the new marijuana industry. One member is appointed by the governor, one by the attorney general, and one by the treasurer with the two others selected by a majority vote of the governor, attorney general, and treasurer.
Commissioners are to be appointed by September 1st, regulations written by March 15, 2018, and applications for retail license accepted beginning April 1, 2018. Stores are to open on July 1st, 2018.
Welch concedes the deadlines are tight, but have to be met.
"The voters spoke, we already delayed it six months. The new date is the one we are shooting for and I think the public expects us to get it up and running by that date," said Welch.
Dick Evans, a Northampton attorney, who chaired the political committee that advocated for Question 4, praised legislators for not touching the parts of the law dealing with personal possession and home cultivation of marijuana.
" That is extremely important that the new rights the voters demanded and achieved last November have been preserved," said Evans.
Marijuana legalization opponents got their final shots in during Thursday’s debate at the State House.
Republican Senator Don Humason of Westfield voted “no” on the bill and predicted the voters who approved bringing the marijuana industry to Massachusetts would come to have buyer’s remorse.
"I think someday we will look back at the day the voters legalized marijuana in Massachusetts and we are going to regret that decision," said Humason. " I just didn't want to be a part of it."
The law requires marijuana be sold in packaging that would be difficult for a child to open. It bans any marketing aimed at people under age 21, and requires penalties for retailers caught selling marijuana to people under 21.
Oversight of the recreational and medical marijuana industries would be put into the hands of the new five-member commission.
Medical marijuana has been available in Massachusetts since 2014.