After numerous missed deadlines, the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has reached an agreement on how deep they will cut into Question 4, last November’s successful ballot initiative legalizing recreational cannabis.
Beacon Hill and Boston City Hall had been the centers of dissent around Question 4 long before election day with Governor Charlie Baker alongside Boston Mayor and former union hobnobber Marty Walsh leading the charge. Now down the hall from Baker’s office, officials have come together to create something that resembles what voters passed more closely than recent attempts to chop up the law even further.
“After weeks of intense advocacy from Massachusetts voters, legislators have decided to respect the will of the people,” said Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project and one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign. “We are relieved that the legislature has dropped the House’s ‘repeal and replace’ bill introduced last month, which would have made damaging changes to the law.”
According to a statement released by Question 4’s backers when word of the compromise dropped today, the bill’s most significant changes relate to local control and taxes. The legislation adjusts the local control policy, allowing government officials in towns that voted “no” on the 2016 ballot initiative to ban marijuana businesses until December 2019.
More interesting is what it did for towns that voted “yes” in 2016, any bans must be placed on a local ballot for voters to approve. Meaning just because a municipality might have an old school city hall run by people nuns hit with rulers back in the day, they won’t be able to block the will of the voters and hence the industry.
The maximum sales tax rate will increase from 12 to 20 percent. Under the bill, the state tax will be 17 percent and the local option will be 3 percent. The state house had long been expected to increase the tax rate, with the Boston Globe calling for it last October before “the industry could hire lobbyists.”
“The law passed by voters was well-crafted and required no alteration,” said Schweich. “However, we respect the need for compromise, and while we don’t approve of every provision of this bill, we are satisfied that the outcome will serve the interests of Massachusetts residents and allow the Commonwealth to displace the unregulated marijuana market with a system of taxation and regulation.”
June saw the House and Senate pass very different plans for the implementation of Question 4 before entering a conference committee to resolve all their differences. The state budget then through another wrench into the mix when officials decided to halt the resolution of the two bills in order to get that done. During this, Massachusetts residents made over 1,000 telephone calls to their lawmakers urging rejection of the House approach, while advocacy organizations put additional pressure on the legislature.
“We commend the Senate for holding the line on a number of important issues,” said Jim Borghesani, spokesperson for the 2016 Yes on 4 campaign and the subsequent advocacy effort to defend the law. “Now it’s time to provide funding that will allow the regulators to establish the rules that will govern marijuana cultivation and sales.”
The progress in Massachusetts is a huge win for cannabis reform in New England which has seen some hiccuping this year in Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire — all efforts are considered well positioned for next year’s push.
“Maine is in the process of implementing its marijuana regulation law passed by voters, while legislators in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut all seriously considered bills to make marijuana legal for adults this year,” Schweich said. “The fact that marijuana sales will begin in Massachusetts in just one year will place added pressure on Rhode Island in particular. If legislators fail to take action, the Ocean State will soon be senselessly forfeiting significant and sorely-needed tax revenue to its neighbor.”
We reached out to Shaleen Title, one of the drafters of Question 4. We asked her if she felt the compromise was closer to the vision of her and the fellow authors had in mind.
“Absolutely,” Title said. “It’s gratifying to see that the flood of phone calls, emails, visits, rallies and strong engagement by our communities has led to a compromise bill that is very close to the will of the voters and adopted nearly all of the equity provisions recommended by the Equitable Opportunities Now coalition and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. Looking at how the worst parts of the disastrous bill introduced by the House have largely disappeared, the takeaway is that when we unite and fight, we win.”
Regulated marijuana sales are set to begin in Massachusetts in July 2018.
Longtime Mass potlitico Kris Krane of 4Front Ventures gave us the pulse of the industry’s feelings about the deal.
“I think all things considered this is a good ending,” said Krane, agreeing with his peers on how bad the House bill could have gone.
Krane felt basing the level of scrutiny on the levels seen by the state’s forthcoming casino industry was a bad idea, not to mention repealing and replacing the will of the voters.
“Ultimately, the compromise bill is much more based on the Senate bill than the House bill,” he said, adding that he wasn’t crazy about the local control compromise, but he gets it. “We very purposely put in the initiative in order for a town to ban they had to put it to a vote of the town and not allow it in the hands of the local select board or city council because they’re just too susceptible to the angry mob.”
In the compromise bill towns that saw a no vote last year will be able to ban the industry without a vote by the end of 2019.
Krane also believes the compromise fixes the biggest flaw of the initiative, which was combining regulatory oversight.
“We couldn’t combine the oversight for the adult use and medical programs unless we were going to put the whole recreational program into the department of health,” said Krane. “Which is not at all where it belongs.”
Krane said the DOH’s failures in implementing the state’s medical program was reason enough. Working with the DOH and whoever would be handling the licensing would have been an administrative nightmare, he said. The initiatives authors couldn’t rectify the issue themselves because it had not been six years since medical cannabis passed, the required amount of time before one ballot initiative can modify another in Massachusetts.
“Nothing at all about Question 4 in 2016 could change anything about the medical program that passed in 2012,” said Krane. “We couldn’t have created a mechanism for nonprofits to become for profit because it would have been deemed illegal and pulled the initiative from the ballot.”
Krane also noted they were doing a virtual separation allowing folks to log in as patients or rec users, putting an end to the wacky two-counter systems seen in Colorado.
TELL US, are you happy to see Massachusetts moving forward to implement recreational cannabis?