The Massachusetts House debated a bill on Wednesday that would repeal and replace the recreational marijuana law approved by the state's voters in November. Critics who lashed out at the proposal accused lawmakers of ignoring the will of the electorate and taking a hostile approach to the legal cannabis industry.
The legislation would raise the tax on retail marijuana sales from 12 percent to 28 percent.
Other provisions include stringent background checks and fingerprinting for all people who own or work in licensed marijuana-related businesses. The bill would create two new enforcement agencies, one within the Cannabis Control Commission - a five-member board that will regulate both recreational and medical marijuana - and another within the state attorney general's office. It also establishes standards for the packaging and labeling of marijuana products, including edible ones, to assure those products are safe.
The bill would continue to allow adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to 12 pot plants per household, and allow retail marijuana stores to begin opening in the second half of 2018. But local governing boards, such as city councils and town meetings, could ban or limit pot shops without first asking voters.
Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chairman of the Marijuana Policy Committee, argued at the outset of debate the bill makes "sensible and practical" improvements to the ballot question.
"What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular," said Cusack, a Braintree Democrat. "This legislation gets it right. Right for the consumer, right for the industry and above all, it gets its right for the people of (Massachusetts)."
The Senate was scheduled to debate its version on Thursday, which seeks a more modest set of revisions to the current law. The Senate proposal keeps the marijuana tax at 12 percent and would continue to require a vote by residents before marijuana stores can be banned.
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The ultimate fate of the law will likely be determined in closed-door negotiations by a six-member House and Senate conference committee. Lawmakers hope to send compromise legislation to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's desk by July 1.
Hours before the House debated, several dozen pro-marijuana activists gathered outside the Statehouse to urge defeat of the bill.
"The message it sends is the will of the people be damned," said Will Luzier, who headed the November ballot question campaign.
Andy Gaus, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said under the House bill anyone working in the marijuana industry is "presumed to be a criminal and will be treated that way."
Several black and Latino lawmakers also took issue with the bill, arguing it weakened provisions designed to help minority-owned businesses gain a foothold in the cannabis industry.
Legislators, even those who opposed marijuana legalization, have repeatedly promised to respect the will of voters. But many have also argued the ballot question was written with the interests of the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry foremost in mind - and paid too little attention to broader public safety and consumer-related issues.
Supporters of a higher marijuana tax say the revenue is needed to pay for enforcing and regulating marijuana. The House bill also calls for dedicating $30 million in marijuana revenues to substance abuse treatment programs.
Those advocating a lower tax say it would encourage consumers to buy the drug legally and hasten the demise of the underground market.
A 28 percent tax rate, Cusack said, would put the state in about the "middle of the pack" among the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and below what is paid by consumers in Washington and much of Colorado.