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December 29, 2016

Baker says pot law delay is justified

Courtesy Good Chemistry Gov. Charlie Baker called a proposed delay in rollout for the new marijuana industry "perfectly appropriate."

Saying the tax rate on legal pot sales is one area that "really needs some work" in the voter-approved marijuana law, Senate President Rosenberg on Wednesday defended a proposed six-month delay of key provisions in the law and Gov. Charlie Baker called the delay "perfectly appropriate."

"Some of the parts of the bill really need some work, for example the tax rate. There are questions around addiction and public health and public safety that are either not addressed or we can do a better job based on what we're seeing in the other states," Rosenberg told reporters after House and Senate lawmakers in a lightly attended post-election session rushed a bill to the governor's desk delaying implementation of legal retail sales of the drug and other aspects of the new law by six months.

Rosenberg said he wants a marijuana bill signed into law within six months, and forecast additional legislating around the soon-to-be-legalized industry.

Rosenberg's timeline would make marijuana front-and-center for lawmakers soon after the next two-year session begins in January. The Legislature has for years shied away from marijuana policy debates while Bay State voters have repeatedly shown a willingness to ease restrictions on the intoxicating plant. Now lawmakers, including many who opposed the voter law, are tasking themselves with rewriting and amending the law.

"We definitely want this signed into law within six months," Rosenberg said of anticipated new marijuana legislation that legislative leaders indicated would be drafted a new committee. He said, "The hope is that we will have it on the governor's desk in time for it to be smoothly implemented starting six months from now."

The bill sent to Baker's desk without debate on Wednesday generally delays by six months the system of regulated sales laid out it in the law. It pushes back from March 1 to Sept. 1 the deadline for Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to make appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission, which will be charged with overseeing the retail marijuana industry - an industry still outlawed under federal law.

"It doesn't sound like that complicated a piece of legislation but I haven't read it yet, and obviously we want to take a look at it before we do anything," Baker told the News Service. He said, "I think a six-month delay is perfectly appropriate, sure. Make sure we do it right."

Goldberg said her office would "continue working diligently toward implementing Question 4, collaborating with stakeholders across the Commonwealth," according to a spokeswoman.

Under the legislation filed by Winchester Democrat Sen. Jason Lewis and sent to Baker's desk Wednesday afternoon, the control commission would need to have initial regulations in place by March 15, 2018 - six months after the ballot law's deadline, according to a bill summary provided by Lewis's office.

Expecting a "robust debate," House Speaker Robert DeLeo this month said the House would "do everything we can" to pass a new marijuana bill next year.

Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Yes On 4 marijuana legalization campaign, pointed to the 7.4 percent margin of victory in opposing any major changes to the law.

"We are very disappointed that the Legislature has decided to alter Question 4 in an informal session with very little notice regarding proposed changes. We are willing to consider technical changes to Question 4 so that the new law is implemented in a timely and responsible manner," Borghesani said in a statement. "However, our position remains that the measure was written with careful consideration regarding process and timelines and that no major legislative revisions are necessary. Further, the voters of Massachusetts approved Question 4 by a significant margin, and any alteration of the law deserves a transparent, deliberative legislative process."

The delay bill leaves intact provisions of the law that legalized possession, cultivation and gifting of marijuana for people 21 and older.

Medical marijuana was legalized by voters in 2012, and pro-marijuana activists claim full legalization will usher in a $1 billion market.

Rosenberg expressed skepticism over whether the marijuana taxes in the ballot law would provide enough to pay for its implementation. Pro-pot supporters of the law had estimated the 3.75 excise tax combined with the state's 6.25 percent sales tax would eventually raise $100 million by 2020. Cities and towns have the option of adding a 2 percent surtax on marijuana sales under the ballot law.

"What we're doing is working on the details. For example, most of us who've looked at this don't have a clue whether there's enough money from that tax rate to actually pay for setting up the agency, for doing the licensing, for doing the enforcement, and there also have to be considerations for public safety and for public health," Rosenberg said.

The Amherst Democrat, who unlike DeLeo and Baker, voted in favor of the law, also expressed concern about the limit of 12 plants per household written into the law, suggesting that might allow too much home-growing.

"We realize that that the people voted for this and homegrown is in there, but we have a right to take a look at that and determine whether 12 plants is a reasonable amount to have in someone's home," Rosenberg said.

After emerging as a supporter of the ballot measure, Rosenberg has been openly critical of provisions within the new law, suggesting lawmakers consider increasing the legal age of possession to 25. He said he had questioned the ballot referendum before it became law as well.

"I raised all kinds of questions. I didn't give an exhaustive list, but I raised all kinds of questions," Rosenberg said.

Lewis's bill, which was a redraft of legislation filed by Kingston Democrat Rep. Tom Calter, also includes language that would exclude marijuana cultivation from a state zoning law that provides an exemption for horticultural and agricultural land uses from special permit requirements.

Plympton farmer Jeff Randall had contended that current laws allowed him to cultivate marijuana on his property without a special permit.

The bill also calls for a "comprehensive baseline study of marijuana use" in the state.

The delay bill could have been blocked by any member of the Legislature raising an objection on the floor. Few lawmakers attended the sessions.

Beacon Hill officials have done little publicly to begin addressing ballot law implementation in the seven weeks since it passed. Rosenberg said passing the delay bill now, during the post-election lame-duck session, was necessary.

"We started talking about the delay about three weeks ago. It took this long to negotiate the delay that we have, and since I voted for it, and we want to uphold the will of the voters we want to get this done as quickly as possible," Rosenberg said. He also said, "Virtually every ballot question that comes to us from the public, after it's been voted, goes through some review and some revisions - some pretty quickly and some years later."

Rosenberg and DeLeo said that in the coming weeks they will set up a Committee on Marijuana to draft the additional legislation concerning the new law.

The Massachusetts Medical Society praised the delay.

"We remain very concerned regarding the short- and long-term consequences of recreational marijuana use, but are hopeful that the delay in implementation may help to mitigate some of those concerns, especially when it comes to the health and wellness of our youth," Massachusetts Medical Society President Dr. James Gessner said in a statement. "We urge Governor Baker to sign this important legislation into law."

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