The Legislature's new marijuana committee wants to pass a bill altering the state's barely used legal cannabis law before lawmakers break in August, putting pressure on the new panel to decide the scope of what they will change sooner rather than later.
The Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy held its first hearing Monday to hear from officials and stakeholders involved in bringing legal cannabis sales to Massachusetts.
At the lengthy hearing, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg urged lawmakers to retain the parts of the law that give her office oversight of how the nascent marijuana industry will be regulated, and said even with the six month delay they enacted earlier this year, being ready for retail sales in July 2018 will be tough.
"We still need to keep moving forward quickly because we will need every bit of that time... or we would not even be ready by the new deadline," Goldberg said.
Will Luzier, the campaign manager behind the ballot campaign that successfully won in 2016 with over 53 percent of the vote, and now political director of a coalition backing the current law, told lawmakers they'll have plenty to do simply implementing the law and they don't need to get involved in rewriting it.
"Fund the Cannabis Control Commission to seat the commissioners and allow the regulatory process to begin... The CCC will be in the best position to make sound, evidence-based recommendations to the committee," Luzier said.
But it's likely that the Legislature will make major changes to the law, including how marijuana is packaged, sold and taxed.
The tax rate is of particular interest to lawmakers who see the 3.75 percent excise tax on retail sales as far too low to pay for the regulatory structure the state will need to safely operate a marijuana market. Other states that have legalized marijuana have installed excises taxes several times the current Massachusetts rate. Washington state is taxing marijuana sales at 37 percent.
The downside of raising that tax is that black market marijuana sales may persist if dealers can supply tax-free products at a lower cost.
"Some of us feel that if we keep the tax rate low in the beginning, maybe a little bit higher than it is right now, that that's the way to establish the legal market, dampen the black market," Rep. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke) suggested, adding that the state would then raise the tax over the next decade once shops are up and running.
Another aspect of the law the committee may try to deal with will be the question of how cities and towns can opt out of hosting a marijuana retail business. The Massachusetts Municipal Association is fighting a provision in the current law that calls for a ballot referendum in a town or city before a ban can be in place. Town and city officials argue that a municipality's select board or city council should be authorized to enact a ban.
"The reasoning behind that was, marijuana commerce now makes politicians nervous. I know it makes you nervous," Luzier told Sen. Vinny DeMacedo (R-Plymouth) when asked why elected officials couldn't opt-out on behalf of their municipality.
"And so we thought it was important for local folks to have a say, in other words, local voters, to have a say in what their city or town government was going to do with regard to marijuana commerce," Luzier said.