As Maine slowly slogs through the process of regulating the sale of recreational cannabis, it’s worthwhile to see how the same process is playing out in Massachusetts, where some legislators seem determined to re-write the law entirely.
A Mass House revision introduced last week would have more than doubled the tax rate on recreational cannabis from 12 to 28 percent, as well potentially added a 21.75 percent tax on medical marijuana. House Speaker Bob DeLeo yanked that rewrite from a scheduled floor vote last week after drawing the ire of pot advocates. But this Monday, members of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy advanced a hideously similar version anyway. Among other serious setbacks, the House bill calls for shifting banning abilities in municipalities from actual voters to aldermen, selectmen, and councilors.
At a June 7 rally organized by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCANN/NORML), longtime activist Bill Downing said that “[t]he overarching issue of stupidity really is the whole idea that we need to set up a separate infrastructure for the taxation [of cannabis] and that it should be handled by the people who do tobacco.”
Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly, a legal cannabis supporter, was at the rally, calling for constituents to contact their elected officials to let them know how they feel about pending revisions to Question 4. He also noted the importance of keeping major trade groups in check.
“I think it’s an ominous sign,” Connolly said about reports on Big Tobacco’s push in the Commonwealth. “I think we have to be skeptical and cautious about what their intentions are. In election after election after election, we’ve seen voters say we want to move away from the war on drugs, we want to have a progressive attitude … I’m skeptical of any sort of big corporate entity that wants to come in and sort of introduce its own oppressive regime on this new industry.”
Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Yes on 4 coalition that helped write and protect the current voter-approved law, slammed the revisionist twists and turns, which he sees as demonstrative hostility toward the marijuana industry. “The Senate respected the will of the voters by engaging in a transparent and collaborative process that yielded slight changes targeting municipal and legislative concerns,” Borghesani wrote in a statement. “The House bill doesn’t respect the will of the voters at all; in fact, it repeals the will of the voters.”
Amidst all the political and regulatory hand-wringing, advocates like MassCANN Director Jeff Morris are trying to keep in the center lane. At the rally he laid out what his group wants the members of the House and Senate to consider:
– Expungement of criminal records for nonviolent marijuana offenders.
– Legislation to ensure weed users are treated like alcohol users.
– Giving cultivation oversight to the Mass Department of Agriculture.
– Ensuring that retail operations begin to open in July 2018.
Yes on 4 and Borghesani back the Senate’s version of things, which was released last Friday. Introduced by Somerville Sen. Pat Jehlen, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, her proposal stays much truer to the law passed by Mass voters. It’s anybody’s guess how legislators will synthesize these so-called Senate and House omnibus bills — amalgamations of dozens of cannabis bills pushed by various lawmakers this session — but in the meantime, advocates are speaking out loudly about the significant insult that the House move amounts to.
“It looks like they assume criminality of anyone who wants to enter the industry,” Borghesani said, referring to language that allows the state to deny a cannabis retail, testing, cultivation, or manufacturing license to people “convicted of a felony or other crime involving embezzlement, theft, fraud or perjury,” as well as to those who “have not been prosecuted or convicted but form a pattern of misconduct or has affiliates or close associates that would not qualify for a license.”
In other words, if they don’t like your friends, no pot biz for you.
“There are onerous review processes,” Borghesani added. “Even if you want to have your parking lot plowed, the plow driver would have to have a background check.”
“I want people to know that I have taken the results of last year’s elections to heart, and I am really trying to support the spirit of what was adopted last year,” Rep. Connolly said. “I don’t want to see us get too far afield … If anyone has a concern about a particular provision, they should let myself or their own legislator know.”
Leave it to Massachusetts to make the process here in Maine seem like smooth sailing. Stay tuned!