Mass. Senate OKs marijuana law amendments, keeps tax rate at 12%



Published: 06-23-2017 12:38 AM

BOSTON — Approving changes that legislators say maintain the spirit of the voter-approved law, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill Thursday proposing amendments to the state’s recreational marijuana legislation.

Much of the pre-vote discussion focused on lifting up communities most affected by the war on drugs, said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, following the vote.

“I’m pleased with the quality of the debate and the amount of engagement among the members,” he said. “As we promised, we stuck as close as we could to the voters’ approved law, improving it in ways consistent with that law.”

Passed on a 30-5 vote, the Senate bill comes on the heels of a bill passed Wednesday by the House that would raise the tax rate on marijuana from 12 percent to 28 percent, among other proposed changes. A conference committee consisting of three members from each chamber is set to reconcile differences between the two bills with the goal of submitting a unified version to Gov. Charlie Baker for approval by July 1. Any delays could set back the intended start date for retail marijuana sales, July 1 of next year.

The Senate bill holds the tax rate at a maximum of 12 percent, as approved by voters. Advocates say keeping taxes relatively low would entice consumers to buy pot from legal suppliers, while a higher tax might persuade them to continue using illegal dealers.

Rosenberg said the Senate measure would seal records of people with “minor drug offenses that didn’t involve violence,” and expunge records of those convicted.

“We’re trying to inject some social justice into the bill,” he said. “Once you spend time in our corrections system, you develop a record, even if it’s a minor crime — as many of these drug offenses are — that affects you for the rest of your life.”

He said lawmakers also worked to promote balanced participation in the retail marijuana market for communities of color, “where you had disproportionate impact of the war on drugs,” lest they be left out entirely or turned into “pot ghettos” that benefit wealthy out-of-towners who didn’t see fit to open shop in their own backyards.

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“Those communities tend to get the short end of the stick on both ends,” he said. “We want to have a proper balance.”

Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-East Longmeadow, also spoke highly of the Senate’s accomplishments on Thursday.

“The war on drugs has damaged our communities, ruined lives and cost our state tens of billions of dollars. Today, Massachusetts took a historic step in addressing this failed policy,” he said in statement.

At the same time, he said, the bill ensures that a share of the revenue from marijuana sales will be spent on efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.

Another goal of the bill, Rosenberg said, was to ensure local farmers have access to the market, “so we don’t have just large corporations and grow facilities that are sort of corporate-oriented, but rather smaller units that farmers could put together.”

As for home growing, Rosenberg said legislators left that alone on Thursday despite a proposal to cut back on allowable amounts. As it stands people can possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and keep up to 12 plants per household.

“In the real world most people who grow at home do not have the same type of yield as commercially grown plants,” he said, explaining plants are often lost before they can be harvested. “They’re going to have a lot less supply than people think they are.”

He said in the future he’d like to address the issue of home growers who yield more than they’d like to use or give away as gifts, as allowed by law. He said ideally there would be some mechanism for them to sell it in the legal market.

Marvin Cable, a Northampton defense attorney who often takes marijuana cases, said addressing minor offenders’ records is a “a step forward.” He said the House bill was disappointing and the Senate version had positive points, but still he was hoping lawmakers would do more to open the marketplace.

“I supported the ballot initiative but it would have been nice for the initiative to be less restrictive,” he said, referencing how he’d like to see small growers have an easier time getting licensed. “It should be a free market, as long as it’s not done in a way that’s so unregulated that it’s harmful.”

Both the House and Senate bills would add two members to voter-approved three-member Cannabis Control Commission. Under the Senate bill, however, only the chairman of the panel would be full-time, while the House bill puts all members at full-time status.

This report includes material from the Associated press.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at