Communities, activists and businesses in holding pattern while Massachusetts Legislature debates pot
As state lawmakers continue to argue over how to revamp the state marijuana law, local officials agree on one point: It’s time to get something on the books.
“I understand it’s kind of a third-rail issue, but just put the rules in place and then we can deal with it,” Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant said.
People have been “knocking on his door” asking about medical and recreational marijuana for the past five and a half years.
“It’s obviously something we’re going to be addressing shortly, we just want to know what the rules are before we start going down that path,” he said.
Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana by approving a statewide ballot question in November, and state lawmakers have struggled ever since to revise the original language.
“The way Question Four was written, they should have left it alone,” said Cara Crabb-Burnham, the former dean of faculty at the Natick-based Northeastern Institute of Cannabis, and current recreational marijuana activist. “What the legislation did was a completely convoluted rewrite.”
After passage, vocal opponents pointed out several issues they said were not addressed in the law, including regulation of edibles, drugged driving, home growing operations, funds to pay for repercussions of the legalization, and whether municipalities could ban sales.
State legislators set a deadline of last Friday to finish revamping the law and missed it. Sources told the State House News Service on Friday that a deal was unlikely to conclude overnight.
Two remaining points of debate seem to be holding up passage of the bill – taxes and local control over restricting marijuana retailers. The Senate proposed taxing recreational marijuana at the originally proposed 12 percent, and requiring town-wide votes for restricting sales, while the House upped the tax to 28 percent, and gives further local control to local boards, such as selectmen or city councilors.
“The issue to me is that it needs to go forward,” state Rep. Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat, said. “I think the particulars are things that get worked out in a compromise sort of way, which is how government actually works.”
Walsh, who is not in the six-person commission tasked with developing the final bill, said he’s looking for basic, “workable” terms when it emerges. He wants control through local boards, but won’t draw a line in the sand for it, and he wants to make sure the tax isn’t too high or too low.
“If the tax isn’t made reasonable, all this legalization is for naught, because the consumer is going to go to the black market,” said Dorian DesLauriers, founder and CEO of the Milford-based marijuana testing lab ProVerde Labs. “I think if the tax rate is unnecessarily high, you’ll prop up the black market quite a bit.”
Maggie Kinsella, admissions coordinator for Northeastern Institute of Cannabis in Natick, agreed, saying recreational marijuana sales isn’t a new business in Massachusetts – just not a legal one before now. If the negatives of buying legally outweigh the positives, she said, people will continue to buy illegally.
Similarly, legalization advocates argue against restricting the decision on banning or limiting sales to a local Board of Selectmen or City Council.
“If a town has a town-wide referendum and they want to make a decision, so be it,” DesLauriers said. “However, two people, two people, in some communities should not be able to make that decision.”
Those against the idea of a town-wide referendum said the town-wide vote can be ungainly, and wanted to give local authorities more flexibility.
Back at the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis, graduates are already working in the medical marijuana field in Massachusetts, Kinsella said. They’re just waiting on the final word on recreational marijuana.
“I tell students to have patience and the ball is rolling downhill,” Kinsella said, of the legal recreational marijuana industry. “There’s a few people trying to push it back up, but gravity sinks.”
ProVerde Labs’ DesLauriers said he worries about people consuming an unregulated product while the state debates. His company currently tests only medicinal marijuana, but would expand to recreational testing once the new law is established.
Unregulated marijuana could have anything in it, he pointed out, and the consumer might not get what he or she is paying for. In his current testing, he said he finds a “surprising amount” of pesticides.
When the six-member conference committee finally emerges with a bill, most lawmakers won’t have much further say, Walsh said.
“To a certain extent, I’m in the same boat that voters were (in November) when you just get a bill, (voters) got a referendum, and you either support it or you don’t support it,” he said. He added, “It’s going to be what it’s going to be, and it’s going to be a binary yes or no vote.”
A State House News Service story cited a source saying there was still a list of issues to work through before compromise is reached.
Information from the State House News Service was used in this story. Alison Bosma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-3957, or on Twitter at @AlisonBosma.