State Lawmakers Submit Compromise Marijuana Bill

State Lawmakers Submit Compromise Marijuana Bill
credit:Expert Joints

Retail marijuana shops may be scarce or nonexistent on the Upper Cape next year, based on the latest marijuana legislation and the reaction from a number of elected officials in the local towns.

On Monday, July 17, the Massachusetts State Senate and House of Representatives agreed on a revised version of the marijuana legalization law that voters approved in November. Pending a final vote scheduled for yesterday in the State Legislature, the bill could go to Governor Charles D. Baker Jr., who would have 10 days to act on the legislation.

Resulting from negotiations by a six-member conference committee, the compromise among other things addressed a dispute among lawmakers over local control of pot shops. Retail marijuana stores will be allowed to open starting next summer in Massachusetts communities that allow them.

Under the new legislation, cities and towns where voters backed the ballot question, more than 260 of the state’s 351 communities, would require a referendum to ban or restrict retail marijuana stores.

In communities where a majority of residents voted against the ballot question, which include the four Upper Cape towns, a simple vote of a board of selectmen or city council could bar pot shops with no involvement from the community’s voters.

The new legislation also would allow retail pot sales to be taxed at a maximum 20 percent rate.

The rate is a compromise between a House proposal to raise the total tax on marijuana to a mandatory 28 percent and the Senate proposal to keep the tax at the maximum 12 percent approved by voters.

The compromise bill calls for consumers to pay a 10.75 percent excise tax in addition to the state’s regular 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities and towns could also add a 3 percent local tax and temporarily recoup an additional 3 percent of sales through host community agreements signed with marijuana businesses.

Under the legislation, people 21 and older can continue to carry up to an ounce of marijuana with them, have up to 10 ounces of marijuana at their residences, and grow up to 12 marijuana plants in their residence.

In Falmouth, the chairman of the board of selectmen, Susan L. Moran, believes allowing or disallowing the sale of recreational marijuana is a settled issue in the town.

Falmouth voters rejected legalization in November and then followed up by approving Question 2, which explicitly banned the sale of marijuana, on the May town election ballot.

“I absolutely do not think it has to be brought before us again,” Ms. Moran said. “Selectmen support the vote that was already taken in Falmouth.”

Town Counsel Frank K. Duffy Jr. will not rule out the prospect of selectmen having to vote again on the issue. It depends on the language of the bill when and if it is signed by the governor, Mr. Duffy said.

In Mashpee, Thomas F. O’Hara, chairman of the board of selectmen, said Wednesday, July 19, that the board would take the retail marijuana issue up at a subsequent meeting. He said that he would like to discuss the issue with his fellow board members before making a decision.

Selectman Andrew R. Gottlieb, also reached Wednesday, said that if Governor Baker signs the bill as is, the board should take the initiative and ban retail sales.

“If the governor signs what’s put on his desk, then we ought to do it,” he said.

He expects the board to take up the issue at a future meeting. If asked for a vote, he would vote to ban the retail sale of marijuana in Mashpee.

Part of Mr. Gottlieb’s decision came about because the new bill looked like it offered more incentives for towns to allow retail shops. More shops in the region would mean fewer potential shoppers in Mashpee and less tax revenue for the town.

Sandwich Board of Selectmen chairman Susan R. James said, like Falmouth, residents of Sandwich have already made their feelings clear.

“The board deliberately decided to have a referendum vote at the last election to ask the townspeople whether or not they wanted recreational marijuana establishments in our community,” she said, adding that they voted against such businesses. “Even though the new language provides for the board to make that decision, the decision has already been made by the people.”

In Bourne, voters have approved a temporary moratorium, rather than an outright ban on recreational pot shops. George Slade, the chairman of the Bourne Board of Selectmen, said that he is open to discussing the matter further. He said that while Bourne voted against the bill in November, the vote was split pretty evenly.

“I’m interested in the revenue possibilities,” he said. “I’m also sensitive to the feelings of people worried about the impact it will have on children.”

Mr. Slade is both looking forward to and dreading the conversations that will take place around the bill in the future.

“We’re going to offend some people and we’re going to make new friends no matter what we do,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Gov. Baker, who had not yet seen the final bill, did not indicate major concerns.