Massachusetts Lawmakers Eye Consensus on Pot Bill, But Differences Remain

Massachusetts lawmakers were hopeful Monday that a compromise could be reached over revisions to the state's voter-approved recreational marijuana law, but key differences remained between proposals offered by House and Senate leaders.

Taxes and the extent of local control over retail pot shops were highlights of disagreement among members of the Legislature's Marijuana Policy Committee, which has been weighing changes in the law that legalized adult use of the drug.

The House bill sets a 28 percent tax on marijuana sales while the Senate would hold the rate at the maximum 12 percent prescribed by the current law.

Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chair of the marijuana committee, said the higher tax rate was justified because of the "many unknowns" associated with implementing and regulating marijuana sales in Massachusetts.

"It's always easier up here on Beacon Hill to be for a tax cut than a tax increase," said Cusack, a Braintree Democrat. "That's why you want to start high and you can always bring it down. That's what other states have done."

Among states that had previously legalized recreational marijuana, Washington has a 37 percent tax, Colorado 27.9 percent, and Oregon's tax is 17 percent after being lowered from 25 percent.

Critics of the House bill contend Massachusetts should instead start low and increase the tax later if necessary. Too high a tax initially, they say, would keep the underground market alive by discouraging consumers from buying pot legally.

Some Democratic senators appeared open to going above the current tax.

"We don't want to be extreme and go too far, but I do believe 12 percent is too low," said Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry of Boston. "Twenty-eight percent is too high. So we have to come to a place in the middle."

Dorcena Forry said she hopes some of the revenue from taxes would go toward programs to help minority-owned businesses get a foothold in the legal cannabis industry.

While the House and Senate could split the difference on taxes, finding agreement on municipal control might be tougher. The House wants to give local elected officials the power to ban pot shops within their cities and towns, while the Senate favors requiring a voter referendum to keep stores from opening.

While noting there was little room for middle ground between those positions, Cusack nonetheless said he had "no doubt" a compromise could be reached on the overall legislation.

Yes on 4, the group that sponsored the November ballot question, formally endorsed the Senate version of the overhaul bill Monday. The group cited several other concerns with the House bill, including provisions it said would allow for warrantless searches of licensed marijuana facilities and overly stringent rules around edible marijuana products.

The full House and Senate could vote on the respective proposals later in the week, setting the stage for negotiations on a final version.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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