Lawmakers, activists at odds over work of new marijuana committee

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BOSTON — Marijuana activists have responded to what it called a "false narrative" that the marijuana legalization law passed last year by voters requires legislative fixes, and urged the new marijuana committee to focus instead on issues not addressed in the ballot law.

About four months after nearly 54 percent of voters approved of legalizing marijuana, the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy is gearing up to develop an omnibus bill addressing aspects of the marijuana law by June. The committee will hold its first public hearing on Monday.

"The new law requires no legislative fixes," Jim Borghesani, who acted as communications director for the successful Yes on 4 campaign, said. "It is a carefully written and researched measure that creates a regulatory body and gives that body full authority to write all rules regarding product safety, packaging, labeling, applications and permitting, security, signage, and all other aspects of the new industry."

Lawmakers over the years have largely avoided altering ballot laws, but they seem eager to change the marijuana law. That's likely to trigger constant debate over whether their recommendations go too far.

The Cannabis Control Commission, the regulatory body established to oversee the legal marijuana industry, has not yet been appointed and the deadline for Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to select its members was extended six months by the Legislature. Borghesani urged the Legislature to fund the commission immediately so commissioners "can begin their crucial work of writing the regulations that will govern the industry."

Borgeshani, who was joined by a handful of other activists for the press conference outside the Statehouse, said the Marijuana Policy Committee should defer any action on bills that would revise the law as passed by voters until the commission has been appointed and provide the commission with an "advisory opinion" on issues lawmakers want the commission to address.

"This measure is designed to be regulated, not legislated," he said of the marijuana law.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed $4 million in his fiscal year 2018 budget plan for a reserve fund to "support costs associated with the regulation of possession and sale of marijuana" and included $300,000 for the same account in a supplemental budget (H 72) he filed last month. The supplemental budget is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Baker and legislative leaders on Monday defended the process they have set out for implementation of legal marijuana, pledging that any legislative tweaks will not prevent adults from legally buying marijuana.

"We will abide by the will of the voters and there will be the legal sale of marijuana in the state. Having said that, I think we do have some work to do relative to regulation relative to taxation and the like," said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, an opponent of the legalization question. "So I feel and expect that that's what the formation of the committee will look into ... but I don't consider our role as legislators at all to be hamstrung just by that particular ballot question except for the legalization."

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg likened the process to the one the Legislature followed when it implemented its 2011 expanded gaming law and pointed out that the marijuana law voters OK'd was written almost two years ago.

"You need to set the foundation as best you can from the very beginning. Changing rules as this thing evolves will make it only more difficult and more complicated," said Rosenberg, who supported the ballot question.

"It is not our intention to undermine the will of the voters," he said. "It is our intention to get it right and so we leave it to the good judgement of the committee to come up with recommendations on things that may not be in the ballot question at all that should have been addressed as well as fine tuning some items that are in there, again, without undermining the fundamental intent of the question."

Baker said the Legislature's decision to delay implementation of the retail marijuana market until July 2018 was "a good one" and backed the approach the Marijuana Policy Committee has staked out, citing conversations he's had with officials in states that legalized marijuana before Massachusetts.

"Almost to a person they said that the biggest issue and the biggest problem they had with implementing this law is keeping up with the reality on the ground," Baker said. "They said you should make sure you have enough time to set this thing up in such a way so that you're not constantly chasing it."

Among the possible changes to the law, the tax rate on sales appears most ripe for revision. The law established a 3.75 percent tax rate on marijuana sales, on top of the state's 6.25 percent sales tax. Cities or towns have the ability to add their own 2 percent tax as well.

Borghesani suggested the committee should first focus on issues not addressed in the ballot law, including impaired driving, baseline marijuana use study efforts, expungment of criminal records related to marijuana-only offenses, use of marijuana tax revenues, and prevention and education.

Rosenberg also vouched for Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the Senate chairwoman of the Marijuana Policy Committee, who said recently she did not ask to serve on the marijuana committee and said she has a lot to learn about the subject matter.

"Absolutely," Rosenberg said, when asked whether he still had confidence in his choice to chair the committee. "Senator Jehlen is a quick study, she's proven that over and over again ... I know that she is going to do a great job."

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