Massachusetts has been making headline news a lot recently. The legislature will soon approve an overhaul of its marijuana laws. In an attempt to change laws voters approved for cannabis legislation, negotiators from the House and Senate agreed on Monday to a bill that would have profound effects for everyone involved in the marijuana industry: It would charge more cannabis tax in Massachusetts and oversee local weed shops.
However, this “deal” has serious legal obstacles. Furthermore, it would be near impossible for local municipalities to implement. The bill increases total tax on weed purchases to a 20 percent maximum. Back when voters approved the ballot, 12 percent was the agreed-upon tax limit. Legislators also aim to merge oversight of all marijuana businesses into a five-member Cannabis Control Commission.
Adults will retain their right to grow, purchase, possess, or use medical marijuana and recreational weed, but only in limited quantities. Legal retail sales will begin in July next year. One important provision in the bill will likely face the legal challenge, as it raises some constitutional issues: The clause, which changes how cities and towns can prohibit local weed shops, growers, and manufacturers, is simply overreaching.
The bill’s revised laws give both state officials and voters some options to limit cannabis businesses in local jurisdictions. The original ballot that citizens approved gave voters within municipalities the right to limit or ban recreational weed facilities. If the House passes this version of the bill, it will give this authority to local state officials instead.
The Legislature is offering to compromise on differences. Towns and cities that voted to approve legalization last year can still use voter referendums to ban or limit pot shops, but local officials will make those decisions in towns and cities that voted against marijuana legalization. In “no” areas, officials will be able to pass ordinances and bylaws without input from voters, as they have already made their views known.
In communities that voted “yes” to legalization, the rules will not change. This is the overwhelming majority. Of the state’s entire population, 72 percent opted to make marijuana legal and accessible for recreational purposes, and according to lawmakers, the bill would not affect their decision-making rights. Only areas that voted “no” will have the state control their cannabis choices.
Naturally, this approach violates the Massachusetts Constitution, as it does not provide equal applicability of laws or equal protection to all citizens in the state. At first glance, it seems that the Supreme Judicial Court will have to clarify some dire constitutional mistakes in this bill. Lawmakers are treading shaky legal soil by even suggesting town-by-town policies after a statewide referendum.
The emerging big picture is quite alarming. Legislature wants to pass a law with one provision for one group of towns and cities, and another provision for the next group of towns and cities, all based on a vote that nobody took. Those living in one town or city may find laws apply unequally to them and their neighbors in other towns or cities. Despite this, lawmakers say the bill is constitutionally correct.
Consumers will also pay a lot more for their weed. The bill wants to increase marijuana taxes in Massachusetts to 10.75 percent, which was just 3.75 percent on the ballot measure. Additionally, it wants to up optional taxes to three percent for towns and cities to impose on legal weed sales. The state’s already existing 6.25 percent sales tax pushes total cannabis taxes to 20 percent.
In the ballot, companies that had either final or provisional medical licenses by last year’s end had an opportunity to expand into recreational weed. The compromise bill takes this head start away from them. The bill would also make profound changes to the Cannabis Control Commission, which is the regulatory agency responsible for regulating and policing the combined marijuana industry.
The bill also tightens mandates for the commission to follow. As just one example, it requires the commission to ban the use of cartoon characters, bright colors, and other child-appealing features in all cannabis packaging, which is the language the ballot lacked. Pot advertising will come with heavy restrictions and stringent regulatory requirements.
The mostly-Democrat Legislature will vote this week on the bill’s compromises. During this process, the bill will not undergo any new amendments. If Baker receives the legislation on Thursday, as expected, then he will have to act within 10 days to adjust the law voters passed in the original ballot. Baker supports raising tax rates, and on Monday, lawmakers urged Baker to sign the new measures into law.
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