The debate over the reshaping of Massachusetts’ recreational marijuana law shifted Thursday to the state Senate, where a more modest set of revisions to the existing law appeared headed for passage.
Discussions in the Senate came just hours after the House backed a bill calling for a significant overhaul in the law voters passed in November that legalized adult use of pot, including a sharp hike in the tax on marijuana sales from 12 percent to 28 percent.
Unlike the House version, the Senate bill would not repeal the current law, but instead keep it in place and make a number of proposed changes in the way both recreational and medical marijuana would be regulated by the state.
“We should not repeal and replace … we should amend and improve,” said Sen. Patricia Jehlen, co-chair of the Legislature’s Marijuana Policy Committee, at the outset of debate. “That is what this bill will do.”
“We need to try to restore some trust in government by not overriding the will of the people,” added the Somerville Democrat, a veiled reference to criticism leveled at the House bill by pro-marijuana activists.
Action by the Senate would set the stage for negotiations between the House and Senate on a compromise bill. Legislative leaders self-imposed a July 1 deadline to deliver a bill to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, acknowledging that further delays would jeopardize the planned July 1, 2018 start of retail marijuana sales.
The Senate bill holds the tax rate at a maximum of 12 percent, as approved by voters. Keeping taxes relatively low, Jehlen said, would entice consumers to buy pot from legal suppliers, while a higher tax might persuade them to continue purchasing from an illegal dealer or perhaps even drive to Maine, where recreational marijuana will be taxed at 10 percent.
The House and Senate bills both change the structure of the Cannabis Control Commission, the state agency that will regulate marijuana. The ballot question called for a three-member panel appointed by the state treasurer, while lawmakers want a five-person board consisting of members named by the treasurer, attorney general and governor.
A key difference, however, is while the House envisions all five commissioners working full-time at their jobs, under the Senate bill only the chairman of the panel would be full-time and the others unpaid volunteers.
Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who was opposed to marijuana legalization, promised to support the Senate bill but sought assurances that the cannabis industry would not become dominated by large national companies.
“We don’t want to see big marijuana like we have big tobacco or big alcohol,” said Lewis, who joined other lawmakers in calling for programs that encouraged women, minorities, veterans and small farmers to own or find employment in legal marijuana businesses.
Original article via TheCannabist