Senate Committee Urges Heavy Regulation If Massachusetts Voters Legalize Pot

Mar 8, 2016

Members of a special committee of the Massachusetts Senate tour a marijuana cultivation facility in Denver,CO. during a fact-finding trip in January 2016
Credit Steve Brown/WBUR

A special committee of the state Senate today released a list of recommendations for lawmakers to consider should Massachusetts voters later this year approve a referendum legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The report does not take a position for or against legalization but it points out the challenges that Massachusetts would face if it becomes the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana use.  State Sen. James Welch of West Springfield, a member of the special committee, said the 118-page report shows the marijuana legalization question is more complex than a simple yes or no.

" I think it can be read either way. You could read it as being very negative against legalization of recreational marijuana. But, at the same time you could read it as ' it can be done.'   We can learn from Colorado. We can learn from Washington state and do it much better," said Welch.

A proposed law from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts is expected to appear on the November election ballot.  If voters approve it, marijuana could be cultivated, manufactured into edible products, and sold in special retail stores in the state beginning in January 2018.

Massachusetts voters in 2008 authorized decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

Anticipating the next step in the marijuana legalization movement in Massachusetts, the nine-member bi-partisan special Senate committee was created last year.  The committee’s research included a five-day fact-finding trip to Colorado, where marijuana is legal.

Welch said one big area of concern is keeping marijuana out of the hands of children. The proposed law sets the minimum age to purchase marijuana at 21.  The committee agrees with that, and suggests taking a hard look at whether certain candies and baked goods infused with marijuana should be permitted for sale.

" The edible area is definitely an area that, should the ballot question pass ,we  need to heavily regulate," said Welch.

The proposed law would allow people to grow up to 12 marijuana plants at home, but the committee recommends Massachusetts ban all home growing.

" Homegrown is an area that could potentially lead to strengthening the black market," said Welch.

The ballot question suggests an excise tax, a local option tax, plus the state’s sales tax would produce a maximum tax rate of 12 percent on the purchase of a marijuana product, but the committee’s report said the tax rate needs to be much higher in order to cover the state’s regulatory expenses.

Other recommendations from the special committee include establishing a legal driving limit for blood levels of THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana, and health warnings on marijuana advertising and product labels.

" It is something we feel strongly about that if the ballot question does pass these are areas we need to address as legislators and as a state," Welch said.

Jim Borgazanni, a spokesman for the group campaigning for marijuana legalization in Massachusetts was critical of the work done by the Senate committee.

" The report reflects a Senate committee that was hastily arranged and a report that was hastily written," said Borgazanni.

He insisted the taxes the state stands to collect from the marijuana industry will be more than enough to cover the expense of regulating the industry and he called the concerns about homegrown marijuana a “red herring.”

" It is unfortunate the Senators did not actually read our initiative because it addresses all of their concerns," said Borgazanni.

The senate committee’s report was issued just a few days after Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh signed an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe opposing marijuana legalization.