The clock is ticking on state lawmakers who are looking to make changes to Massachusetts' marijuana law. A conference committee made up of legislators from the Senate and House are trying to draft a compromise bill that would reconcile differences in separate measures already passed by each chamber. The committee has given itself until tomorrow to come to an agreement. WGBH State House reporter Mike Deehan discussed the committee's efforts with WGBH All Things Considered host Barbara Howard.
Barbara Howard: This is 89-7 WGBH. I'm Barbara Howard. Lawmakers from the Massachusetts House and Senate have been trying to hammer out a compromise on changes to the state's law legalizing recreational marijuana. It was approved by voters in last November's election, but they are fast approaching a self-imposed deadline. Members of the conference committee working on the changes have given themselves until tomorrow to come to an agreement. Joining us from Beacon Hill is WGBH State House reporter Mike Deehan, who's been following this. Hi Mike.
Mike Deehan: Hey, how are you?
Barbara Howard: I’m doing alright. So, this conference committee is trying to bridge the gap between changes that the House wants and changes that the Senate wants when it comes to the marijuana law. How do the House and Senate plans differ?
Mike Deehan: One big way they differ is in local control and that kind of boils down to how a city or town could ban a pot shop from opening there. The House bill actually would allow a city council or a town meeting, things like that, to make the decision to ban a shop from opening. The law as is right now would require a ballot question and all voting citizens to make that call. Another big change is in the different tax rates. The House wants a 28 percent tax at the point of sale on marijuana products. The Senate wants the same rate that’s in the law right now, which is 12 percent.
Barbara Howard: Well why is the House pushing for that higher rate?
Mike Deehan: The House says that they need to start high and then maybe work their way down low if need be, if there’s a problem with the high tax. There’s a lot of concern in cities and towns and amongst the membership about the start-up costs of this new industry and what it will mean for police departments, for school districts, for education things, for studies to look at how to prevent DUI, things like that. They anticipate using that extra revenue for all sorts of different enforcement and regulation reasons.
Barbara Howard: If the House and Senate ever do come to agreement, which they have like 24 hours to do, what would a compromise look like?
Mike Deehan: On the tax rate they’ll probably meet in the middle. I don’t think that there’s too big a surprise if they come out with a 20 to 25 percent tax, something along those lines just to make it easy. One thing they might do is give the local option tax a boost, which would give an incentive for those towns to not ban shops. If they say, you can have 6 percent for the tax revenue, well then you’re incentivized to not shut down opening up the shops. As far as the local control though, it’s kind of complicated, and we’re hearing in the State House now that that’s kind of the hang-up.
Barbara Howard: Okay. Well now they’ve given themselves until tomorrow. Why did the lawmakers put pressure on themselves with tomorrow’s self-imposed deadline?
Mike Deehan: Yeah, a self-imposed deadline’s another way of saying fake deadline. It doesn’t really do anything. Time is a pressure here, though, because what they’re really trying to do, the end goal, is to set up this Cannabis Control Commission. That is going to be the new regulatory body for the state that’s going to take in applications for marijuana shops, process them, vet the people who are trying to invest in these things, and get them online and issue those licenses. That’s what they’re up against, that’s the real deadline. So they have to kind of get this process moving as fast as they can so that we might actually have retail sales next year.
Barbara Howard: So are you saying tomorrow’s deadline is a little squishy?
Mike Deehan: Oh yeah, well everything’s’ squishy around here, they can do whatever they want, but what isn’t squishy is getting those stores online and getting that timeframe in place to get those licenses going. The way I think both bills are written right now, they wouldn’t really be able to issue licenses before July 1st, 2018. That means that if we’re going to have stores open next summer, next fall, they gotta get in place where they can offer those licenses.
Barbara Howard: What if they don’t? I mean, could this go on forever?
Mike Deehan: Well look what happened to medical marijuana. That was delayed plenty of times, a story would open here, another one over there. That didn’t get off the ground nearly as fast as was anticipated and a lot of it was because the regulations weren’t really in place and the administration at the time wasn’t really pushing to get it done. It wasn’t until the Baker administration came in that really got the doors open on a lot of those medical marijuana shops. This was going to be different, because it’s going to be a whole lot more people who are interested in this than the medical side of it. But, if they don’t go on sale at time, there’s no real repercussions other than angry consumers.
Barbara Howard: Okay, thanks Mike.
Mike Deehan: Thank you, Barbara.
Barbara Howard: That’s WGBH State House reporter Mike Deehan.