Berkshire delegation explains both the House and Senate legislation around marijuana

Lawmakers set informal June deadline to get reconciled legislation to Gov. Baker’s desk

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BOSTON — "The point is to implement the will of the voters."

That was state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, talking about how legislation to work out Massachusetts' new marijuana law is proceeding through the Legislature.

The state Senate approved its version of the law on Thursday night by a vote of 30-5. Hinds voted in the affirmative for the bill. The state House of Representatives approved their bill on the regulations the night before by an overwhelming vote of 126-28.

When voters approved legalizing the use and sale of recreational marijuana on November 8, 2016, the Legislature was uninvolved in the process. But joint committees took up the law to codify taxation, access to the industry, criminal justice, and other issues during the 2017-2018 legislative session. The final bill may shift how the sale and use of the plant is regulated in Massachusetts.

Before the bill becomes law, however, the House and the Senate versions of the legislation must pass their respective chambers and be reconciled in joint committees.

"The bill has been improving throughout the process and will continue to improve as we work out differences between the House version and the Senate version," wrote state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, in an email to The Eagle on Thursday.

Mark voted in favor of the House bill.

The two bills will be sent to joint committees for legislators of both chambers to work out the kinks and reconcile the two bills. The Legislature has set itself a deadline of the end of June to deliver the legislation to Gov. Charlie Baker.

"This is exactly how legislation works," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "We pass our versions and then hammer out our differences."

Like Mark, Pignatelli was a yes on the House legislation.

"This bill reflects a commitment to legalizing adult-use marijuana while upholding our duty to ensure safety and effective management," House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement.

Recreational sale of the drug could be banned by local select boards under the House legislation, a major change from the original law which would have restricted that authority to only state officials. The Senate would give the power of banning the sales of recreational marijuana to the public by way of referendum.

Either way, that's good news for opponents of the new industry like West Stockbridge pilates instructor Richard Squailia. Town Hall is discussing allowing eastern Massachusetts-based marijuana cultivation and distribution company Ipswich Pharmaceuticals to open a dispensary in town.

Squailia told The Eagle earlier in June that such a business would "reflect poorly on the town."

In the House version of the bill, taxation on sales of the plant would be increased from the 12 percent approved by voters to a considerably higher 28 percent.

"I'm not happy with the tax," Pignatelli said, "But there are several steps to go in the process. We'll probably have it taxed higher than 12 percent."

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The tax on marijuana sales would remain at 12 percent under the language from the upper chamber.

The Senate bill also calls for the ability to have convictions of marijuana crimes committed before the legalization of the plant expunged, or legally erased, from citizens' records.

Even if that language doesn't make it into the final bicameral legislation, the Legislature plans to take up the expungement of those crimes and other criminal justice issues later in the year as part of a criminal justice overhaul bill.

"We plan to pick it up in the fall," Hinds said.

Pignatelli told The Eagle that though the House marijuana bill didn't include the criminal justice reforms, that doesn't mean the lower chamber isn't concerned about the issue.

"Communities of color, in particular, are at a disadvantage because of these convictions," Pignatelli said. "We want to expunge the misdemeanors."

Hinds told The Eagle that one of his priorities is making sure local farmers have access to the industry. The senator put forth an amendment that was incorporated into a larger amendment to the Senate bill to pursue the interests of local farmers in the cannabis industry.

"We've been working with farmers who have expressed interest in the industry," said Hinds.

It's an interest shared by his House colleagues in the Berkshire delegation.

"The House version includes a number of items that will be helpful for local farmers and sustainable agriculture," Mark told The Eagle in an email.

Those items include provisions for growing industrial hemp and promoting marijuana cultivation on protected land in the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, a Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources initiative started in 1977 to preserve farmland.

"A lot of family farms out here have APRs," Pignatelli said. "We're making sure those farms can grow it as well."

Hinds stressed the need for the Berkshires to not be left behind.

"We need the Berkshires to take advantage of being in a billion dollar industry," Hinds said. "It's better to have our farmers selling these products rather than outside industries."

Hinds also paid tribute to the late state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi. The state Senate held a moment of silence for Cariddi and adjourned in her memory.

Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-464-4872 or @BE_EoinHiggins.


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