Massachusetts lawmakers break up deadlock on legal cannabis sales

After trying to thwart last year’s legalization referendum, the legislature is backing down.

Massachusetts legal cannabis supporters at a December 2016 rally. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Massachusetts legal cannabis supporters at a December 2016 rally. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Some eight months after voters legalized recreational marijuana, the Massachusetts legislature has finally struck a workable deal on the regulations and taxes that will govern the state’s cannabis market.

The compromise follows months of stumbles in the state House and Senate, multiple bills that would have defied the core principals of the referendum enacted by voters, and more than one missed deadline. In finally hammering out a politically and economically viable deal, lawmakers have begun to close the awkward current era in which pot is legal but nobody can buy or sell it legally.

“After weeks of intense advocacy from Massachusetts voters, legislators have decided to respect the will of the people,” Marijuana Policy Project state campaigns director Matthew Schweich said in a press release. “We are relieved that the legislature has dropped the House’s ‘repeal and replace’ bill introduced last month, which would have made damaging changes to the law.”

Massachusetts lawmakers have taken considerably longer to act on tax-and-regulate legislation than their Colorado counterparts. But the almost nine-month wait for legislation is comparable to the pace of change in Washington and Oregon. Those pioneer states afford second-wave adopters of legalization a lot of clear data on how prices respond to tax levels and how local community concerns and ambitions can be factored into state-wide policy.

The industry has been a multi-billion-dollar boon to the Colorado economy, generating thousands of new jobs and tens of millions of new tax dollars for schools in the state. The drawn-out implementation fight in Massachusetts has delayed the start of a similar set of public benefits there.

The compromise legislation still tweaks the specifics of the Question 4 referendum approved by voters in November, but in ways minor enough to satisfy the concerns of advocates. The total state and local sales taxes on marijuana can be as high as 20 percent under the compromise — far above the 12 percent maximum in Question 4, but not a death blow, according to advocates.

“Setting the right tax rate is always a challenge. You don’t want it so high that a significant number of consumers still turn to the illegal, unregulated market,” Marijuana Majority’s Tom Angell told ThinkProgress. “Thankfully that’s something that can be adjusted as time goes on if it doesn’t seem to be working out. And the vast majority of consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product that’s regulated and tested and labeled, which you don’t get on the street.”

Where previous iterations of the law cooked up by the state House had threatened to stifle dispensary and grow-house licensing even in jurisdictions that voted “yes” on Question 4, the new deal requires local officials to seek voter approval before banning cannabusinesses from their towns. (Jurisdictions where the “no” vote carried last November can freeze business licensing temporarily, but must seek voter approval for such bans after 2019.)

The changes to local veto rights over cannabusiness licenses are “one of the most notable outcomes of the compromise,” Angell said. “It really should be a decision by the people, and this compromise mostly accomplishes that.”