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New marijuana bill targeted for Monday

"With a bill of this magnitude and an issue of this import, it deserves 100 percent focus and all of our energy so we can get this right," said Rep. Mark Cusack.
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That legislature has been reworking the voter-approved marijuana ballot bill. Photo: Getty Images

After tepid support and a procedural snafu forced House leadership to pull the rewrite of the marijuana legalization law from consideration this week, the Marijuana Policy Committee is planning to release a redrafted version of the legislation Monday with debate expected in the House on Wednesday, according to the House committee chair.

Rep. Mark Cusack told the News Service he and his staff have been working around the clock to rectify issues with the bill (H 3751) the committee released Wednesday and that the committee has scheduled an executive session for noon on Monday to vote on a new bill.

"With a bill of this magnitude and an issue of this import, it deserves 100 percent focus and all of our energy so we can get this right," the Braintree Democrat said Thursday night from his State House office. "We're trying to do a good bill but also being mindful that we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good with the four months we've had. We have a good bill, a solid bill, a workable bill for the commonwealth, for the consumers and for the industry."

In addition to postponing until next week debate on its marijuana law rewrite, the House on Wednesday sent the Marijuana Policy Committee's bill to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. Though it was not announced during the House's extended session Wednesday, House officials confirmed Thursday that the leadership-backed bill was indeed sent to Health Care Financing.

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, the House co-chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, did not return phone calls from the News Service on Thursday afternoon. But Cusack said Thursday night that his committee was working on separate legislation.

The House is expected to debate and possibly vote on the redrafted bill on Wednesday, he said.

"On this issue, every single member has an opinion and has expressed it to me. So I expect a very healthy and robust debate in the House and I'm sure the Senate is expecting the same," Cusack said. "The overarching goal here is getting this right for the consumers, for the industry, for the people of the commonwealth, and I think our bill is good and will serve as a model for how to get this right."

The new bill will not be drastically different from the bill the committee released this week, Cusack said, though some concerns expressed by committee members will be addressed and issues with definitions and wording will be fixed.

The new bill will also fix an error in drafting that meant the bill released Wednesday actually called for a compounded tax — meaning the 16.75 percent and 5 percent taxes would be levied when the cultivator sells to the retailer and again when the retailer sells to the consumer — making the total tax rate on marijuana purchases as high as 55 percent for some items and as high as 80 percent for some manufactured products like edibles.

Cusack said the intent of the legislation is to cap the effective tax rate at 28 percent and levy it only at the point of sale.

Asked if he is considering scaling back the scope of the bill to just focus on the governance structure or the governance structure and tax rate, Cusack said the bill "only works as an omnibus piece of legislation."

"I understand what Yes on 4 has been lobbying for for months and that other people have been trying to sell the same line of 'just do the commission or just do the commission and taxes,'" he said. "But I'm not going to create a commission and punt all these issues to the commission."

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg on Thursday said the most important issue for the committee to focus on right now is the governance model for the cannabis industry, and that other things like the tax rate and dealing with the agricultural aspects of legal cannabis can be dealt with once the governance structure is in place.

"The core right now is the governance, and to have shifted from the simple construct to a 35-page rewrite almost ... to add that much more on the governance when the committee members and especially the Senate chair had no knowledge that they were considering doing all of that was quite surprising to us," Rosenberg said of the House leadership-backed bill.

Rosenberg on Thursday said much of the House leadership-backed bill was a surprise to the Senate and Marijuana Policy Committee co-chair Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, was among the most blistering critics of the House's marijuana bill on Wednesday, saying the House leadership bill "directly assaults the will of the voters and is a prescription for increasing the illicit market."

Jehlen on Wednesday said the committee worked well together, and that she and Cusack worked well with each other "up until quite recently." Asked what she meant by that, Jehlen said, "I think probably I've said enough."

Regardless, Rosenberg said Wednesday that the relationship between the House and Senate — which has been fraught in recent years with animus and finger-pointing — is "great."

"This is a very complicated issue on a very tight timeline and it's a bit frustrating we aren't two months ago at this stage in the process. But it is what it is, and we move forward," he said, adding an apparent jab that the House-controlled committee had not released a bill sooner.

The Legislature left the bulk of its major workload to the final hours of 2015-2016 formal sessions. Lawmakers targeted June to wrap up the marijuana bill.

 

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