When you've been writing editorials as long as I have, it's hard to give it up, even in retirement. If I were still at the MetroWest Daily News, this is what readers would be seeing:
In Massachusetts, tinkering with legalization
Last November Massachusetts voters, after a long and healthy debate, enacted a law legalizing, taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana in the Commonwealth. Yes, the language in the law and the regulatory structure it established were chosen by advocates and people with ties to the cannabis industry, but that’s how ballot initiatives work.
The state Legislature had decades to fix the marijuana law, and refused. A year ago, the state’s political leaders knew legalization would be on the ballot and knew it was likely to pass. They could have passed a law more to their liking than the one proposed by the advocates. They could have, as Senate President Stan Rosenberg proposed, put an alternative legalization plan or a non-binding statement of principles on the ballot. Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said no.
Soon after the election, with no notice, no debate and almost no legislators present, Rosenberg and DeLeo pushed through a delay in the implementation of legalization. Whether the delay was needed is a matter for debate, which the legislative leaders refused to allow. Instead they set about rewriting the law to accommodate the objections of those who opposed the law and lost the election.
In typical fashion, the leaders of the House and Senate this week released their own legalization bills, which were swiftly enacted by lopsided majorities. Now both bills will go to a conference committee where, behind closed doors, DeLeo and Rosenberg and their deputies will make a deal. That’s how the Massachusetts Legislature works.
The House passed a repeal-and-replace bill. Instead of being taxed at a maximum of 12 percent, it sets taxes at 28 percent. Instead of requiring a referendum vote to prohibit cannabis in a municipality, it allows local elected officials to make the decision.
Senate leaders say their bill “amends and improves” the work of the voters, with no changes in the tax rate or local approval process.
Instead of having the Cannabis Control Commission run by three members appointed by the state treasurer, the Senate bill creates a five-member board appointed by the governor, attorney general and the treasurer. The House bill has a similar provision, and it’s one change I favor. I was always uncomfortable with putting all the power over marijuana regulation in the hands of the treasurer. The initiative’s backers said they were just trying to mirror the structure of the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, but the industry-dominated ABCC is not a great model. The Senate’s plan more closely resembles the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which has performed well.
As the Senate bill recognizes, requiring a ballot vote for total prohibition is not a terrible hurdle. Towns put questions on spring election ballots almost every year, cities every two years. All would have time to ban cannabis outlets before the new law goes into effect. Local officials already have the power to limit the number of licenses in their communities, along with the locations, hours of operation and signage of the businesses. That won’t change.
As for the taxes, 12 percent is reasonable, considering the regulated retailers will have to compete with the black market on price while carrying more overhead. Maine’s legal marijuana will be taxed at 10 percent. If the Mass. tax rate goes up to 28 percent, customers can afford to drive up to Kittery, even paying tolls on the way there and back, and still come out ahead. The House is always hungry for revenue, and DeLeo has a long-established preference for “sin taxes” over taxes based on the ability to pay. But Beacon Hill has overridden the expressed wishes of voters on tax rates before, and paid dearly for it in public trust. There’s not enough money in taxing cannabis, and not enough justification for a higher tax rate, to make it worth the damage it will do to pubic confidence in the Legislature.
The House and Senate will likely split the difference where they can, and if they do, it won’t be the end of the world. Legalization of marijuana possession by adults has already gone into effect, and legislative leaders still expect the first stores to open July 1, 2018. Medical marijuana has already changed the equation, giving thousands of Bay Staters – and their friends - access to quality cannabis produced under government supervision.
The state Legislature can’t stop marijuana legalization in Massachusetts. But it is reminding people, again, why state legislators are held in such low esteem.