House puts off vote on rewrite of recreational pot bill

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BOSTON — House leaders announced late Wednesday they were postponing debate on a contentious bill that seeks major changes in the state's voter-approved recreational marijuana law, including higher taxes on retail sales and more control for municipal officials over pot shops in their communities.

The full House had been expected to vote on the measure Thursday, but Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters after a closed-door Democratic caucus that the debate would be postponed until at least next week because of procedural issues and concerns members raised over elements of the legislation.

"There are certain things we have to clean up," said DeLeo, who still praised the overall bill as "terrific."

Earlier Wednesday, a sharply-divided legislative committee voted to advance the measure, but without the backing of any of the panel's seven senators and with reservations expressed by several House members. The Marijuana Policy Committee had for months been weighing revisions to the law that legalized adult possession and use of marijuana.

"This proposed bill directly assaults the will of the voters and is a prescription for increasing the illicit market," for marijuana, said Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who co-chaired the committee.

Excessive taxes would discourage people from buying the drug legally and keep illegal marijuana dealers in business, critics contend.

The law passed by voters in November calls for a 3.75 percent excise tax on top of the state's regular 6.25 percent sales tax and a 2 percent local option tax, combining to a maximum 12 percent tax rate.

The proposed legislation calls for a 16.75 percent excise tax on top of the regular sales tax and a 5 percent local tax, for a combined 28 percent tax.

Language in the bill that critics suggested could effectively compound the tax rate to as high as 55 percent was attributed to a drafting error that would be corrected by the House.

Several senators on the committee also took aim at a provision that would grant local governing bodies — such as city councils, boards of selectmen or town meetings — the authority to ban outright or sharply limit the opening of retail marijuana stores in their communities. That power rests solely with voters under the current law.

"I'm also concerned about removing the ability of voters to weigh in on the ballot in their city and town on whether or not to allow the sale of recreational marijuana," said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who voted against the bill.

Ten of 11 House committee members voted to advance the bill, though several also called for improvements.

"With deep reservations I will be supporting this out of committee but I will not at all hesitate to vote no on the floor ... if this bill continues in the shape and form as it is," said Rep. Aaron Vega, a Boston Democrat.

Another area of contention among lawmakers centered on the proposed makeup of the Cannabis Control Commission, a regulatory board that will oversee recreational and medical marijuana in Massachusetts. The bill would expand the commission from three members to five and remove it from control of the state treasurer.

Backers said the changes would strengthen the regulatory structure and make it more independent, but critics questioned whether the commission would also lack accountability.

Despite substantial disagreements, lawmakers said they still hoped to send a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk by July 1, to avoid further delays in the opening of marijuana stores in Massachusetts.

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