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Pot Lobbyists Ready to Spend More to Defend Legalization in Mass.

Sara Brittany Somerset

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Marijuana advocates spent millions of dollars to put a legal marijuana law in place in Massachusetts last year, and now they have indicated that they’re willing to spend more to protect the law approved by almost 1.8 million voters.

The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, effective as of December 15, 2016, indicates that adults may possess and use marijuana. After required licensing procedures, retail marijuana stores and dispensaries will be permitted to open beginning in July 2018.

Beacon Hill leaders have made clear they intend to change the law—parts of which took effect in December, the rest delayed six months by the House, Senate and governor—and the committee in charge of making alterations to it has already held hearings.

Jim Borghesani, was the communications director for the successful Yes on 4 campaign, which led the charger for Massachusetts’ voters to pass Question 4, the state ballot initiative allowing anyone ages 21 and older to legally purchase and possess marijuana for recreational use.

Borghesani and Yes on 4 campaign manager Will Luzier, now work with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a Washington, D.C.-based group that Yes on 4 counted as a “primary backer.” The MPP have given more than $350,000 to the Yes on 4 group since mid-2014, according to state campaign finance records. At the end of 2016, Yes on 4 reported having slightly over $13,000 left.

The MPP believes it was money well invested. Borghesani said the MPP advocacy group is prepared to spend even more money in Massachusetts—to make the case that legislative changes violate the voter-approved law.

“We’ve already spent some money on social media targeting, which we think has been very effective; letting some members know exactly how their constituents feel,” Borghesani said.

While Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo were contemplating which legislators to appoint to the new Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, Borghesani explained how legalization backers focused a stream of social media messages at officials in an effort to influence their decisions.

“You might see some other actions taken,” Borghessani added. “But until we see what comes out of the committee, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Of greatest concern, Borghesani said, are changes to the law that would “violate the will of the voters.”

Among those he listed as problematic, were allowing marijuana establishments to be prohibited from a town, by a vote of the selectmen rather than a town referendum; changing the legal age to buy, possess and use marijuana; and reducing the amount of marijuana an adult can grow at home.

Currently, the statute allows an individual to grow up to six plants, and there can be 12 plants in a home. Though it varies greatly, a single plant can produce as much as a pound of pot. No permit is required for home growing under these limits, as long as it’s for personal use and not for sale.

Last month, DeLeo and Rosenberg defended the process they have set out for implementation of legal marijuana, pledging that any legislative changes will not prevent adults from legally buying marijuana.

“We will abide by the will of the voters, and there will be the legal sale of marijuana in the state,” DeLeo said. “Having said that, I think we do have some work to do relative to regulation, relative to taxation and the like.”

Among the possible changes to the law, the tax rate on sales appears most ripe for revision.

The law established a 3.75 percent tax rate on marijuana sales, on top of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities or towns have the ability to add their own two percent tax as well. The combined taxes of up to 12 percent are less than half the tax rate in Colorado, which made recreational marijuana legal in 2012.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a recent editorial board meeting with the MetroWest Daily News, outlined what he wants to see in a marijuana bill.

First, the governor expects expanded local control and favors a cap on the number of marijuana businesses in a given area to control density. Baker also supports determining an “upper end” for marijuana potency, typically measured by the amount of THC in the product.

Child safety regulations, specifically related to edible marijuana products, also rank on the governor’s wish list. He told the Daily News editorial board he wants to see “the subject of children eating edible marijuana products, like brownies or candies” settled. If you’re underage, possession of any amount comes with a $100 fine and a mandatory drug awareness program.

The governor also mentioned a regulatory system that can track marijuana from seed to final product. This system is already in place in Colorado, and while he doesn’t want to admit it yet, Massachusetts would do well to emulate Colorado’s enormously successful system.

Even with more than double the amount of taxes Massachusetts is proposing, Colorado’s increased revenue from marijuana taxes have generated millions, which subsequently has greatly improved the state’s infrastructure, including better hospitals, roads and schools.

Rosenberg, who had previously suggested the committee should look into raising the legal age of using marijuana to 25 and reducing how much can be grown in homes, said he expects the committee’s work will be “fine tuning some items that are in there, again, without undermining the fundamental intent of the question.”

Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen said they are working with a June deadline to prepare an “omnibus bill.”

 

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