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Massachusetts House Passes Controversial Cannabis Bill, Setting up Showdown

House Speaker Robert DeLeo speaks in Boston on March 14, 2016, after Gov. Charlie Baker signed sweeping legislation aimed at reversing a deadly opioid addiction crisis. On Wednesday, the house passed a cannabis bill that essentially repeals and replaces Question 4, a voter-approved measure to legalize adult-use cannabis. (Elise Amendola/AP)

BOSTON—Late Wednesday night, members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 126–28 to pass a bill that would essentially repeal and replace key provisions of Question 4, the ballot initiative that 1.8 million voters passed in November to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Not only have the changes in the House bill angered legalization advocates and Question 4’s authors, they’ve also set up a showdown in the state Legislature. The Senate’s draft bill, which adheres more closely to the ballot measure and aims to limit changes to the voter-approved language, was being debated on Thursday.

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Lawmakers now face a looming deadline if retail operations are to roll out on time for the proposed July 2018 launch date. And if the glacial pace of Massachusetts lawmaking is any teacher, more delays are likely. Even the special session seemed to move at a snail’s pace.

“At 5 p.m., more than 5 hours after start of session, the House just began working through the 118 amendments to pot bill,” reporter Colin A. Young tweeted Wednesday evening.

Both the House and the Senate must debate proposed changes before presenting a final version to Gov. Charlie Baker to sign by a self-imposed deadline of June 30.

Supporters of the voter-approved law favor the Senate’s draft bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville). Jehlen has urged lawmakers to yield to what the electorate voted to enact. “We are not starting from scratch,” she said at a press conference last week. “We are starting from a law that was passed by the voters. It is law, it was passed in a high turnout election, and we need to justify the amendments we make to it.”

“Since when do we tax medicine in the Commonwealth?”
Peter Bernard, Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council

Among other amendments, the House-passed bill would more than double the retail marijuana tax from 12% to 28%, establish a tax on medical marijuana, take full oversight of the industry away from the state treasurer, and create a five-member Cannabis Control Commission to regulate medical and recreational cannabis, with another member within the state attorney general’s office.

The House bill would also shift power to ban cannabis shops and grow operations away from voters. While Question 4 outlines a public voter referendum system to enact bans, the House bill instead grants that power to politicians and municipal officials, such as boards of selectmen, aldermen, and city councilors.

In a statement about the House bill, Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) said it “reflects a commitment to legalizing adult-use marijuana while upholding our duty to ensure safety and effective management.”

“In addition to the rigorous product testing and security measures, I believe that the independence of the Cannabis Control Commission will allow this new industry to be implemented in a safe and efficient manner,” he said.

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In many sections, the House bill includes either deviations or completely new language from the original ballot measure. Most was written behind closed doors. The process has enraged legalization advocates, who blasted the new bill.

“The House tonight repealed and replaced the historic measure enacted by Massachusetts residents last November,” Jim Borghesani, of the Yes on 4 Coalition, said in a statement. “They did it with virtually no public discussion or debate. Their bill is wrong on taxes, wrong on local control, weak on social justice and irresponsible on regulatory efficiency.”

He called the measure “a far cry from what voters overwhelmingly approved last year.”

Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Middlesex), a vocal legalization supporter, said in a statement after the vote: “I just voted ‘No’ on the House marijuana bill. Overall, it strays too far from the provisions of last year’s ballot question. My expectation is that the Senate will soon adopt a better version of this legislation, and I hope the final law will be more reflective of the Senate version.”

At a “Kill The Bill” rally Wednesday on the steps of the State House, longtime activist and Question 4 co-author Bill Downing echoed that statement. The Senate bill isn’t perfect, he said, but it’s by far closer to the ballot measure than the House version.

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“We’re told by our legislators almost universally that ‘Question 4 was poorly written,’” he said, addressing the crowd. “They said ‘Question 4 was written by the cannabis industry.’ It was not. It was written by me … and a bunch of other people who all worked really hard to make a very fine piece of legislation, and it would have worked beautifully if it hadn’t been messed with.”

“After their claims of having written legislation so poorly,” he added, “to see this House bill come out the way it is written is truly shocking. I doubt that the leaders of the House even understand the language in this bill.”

The House bill is actually a revised version of a previous House draft that, when introduced, drew so much blowback from advocates and officials it was eventually pulled by Speaker DeLeo. In spite of the revisions, the version the House passed last night stirred up rancor and disappointment among critics.

Peter Bernard, of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, voiced outrage at the proposed changes during the morning rally. Beyond railing against the “incredibly ridiculous 28% tax they want to levy” on adult-use cannabis, he blasted the bill’s proposed 6.25% tax on medical marijuana.

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“Since when do we tax medicine in the Commonwealth?” he asked, predicting that the proposed tax rates on medical and adult-use cannabis would drive both patients and consumers back to the illegal market.

But the most important element of Question 4 to protect, Bernard said, is homegrow. “Both the Senate and the House bills look like they don’t mess with it, but the House bill that we have to kill does,” he explained. “Keeping them from messing with this is something we worked on pretty hard this year.” Bernard said he even took several lawmakers to different home-grow locations to educate them on the matter.

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, a legal cannabis supporter and current candidate for mayor, was also at Wednesday’s rally, where he was particularly concerned with language asserting the state could deny business licenses to applicants who have “affiliates or close associates that would not qualify for a license.”

Jackson likened the language to McCarthyism.

“That provision is not even in the language in the state of Massachusetts for alcohol,” he said. “So for them to actually add that over and above is again going to put us in a position where we will not have diversity.”

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Jackson pointed to state statistics as proof that the state’s cannabis laws historically have led to racist outcomes. “We’re a state where, from 2006 to 2016, if you were a black guy, you had a 330% increased chance of getting arrested for possession of cannabis—which was legal at the time—and a 500% increased chance of arrest for distribution.”

The voter-approved ballot question was written to help address that and other social justice issues, such as the expungement of cannabis convictions. “We now,” said Jackson, “have a Legislature who is trying to undercut that.”

Indeed, lawmakers sought to remove a so-called equity provision designed to address racial injustice, but later Wednesday dropped the effort in the face of pushback from minority caucuses and speakers such as Jackson.

The full text of the bill, H 3768, is available online. At the time of publication, the Senate was still debating proposed amendments to its version of the bill.

Here is the outcome of Wednesday night’s vote:

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