House leadership-backed legislation overhauling the marijuana law approved by voters last year came under fire from multiple sides Wednesday and by the end of the day, Speaker Robert DeLeo opted to push off Thursday’s planned debate to next week.
House leaders planned to bring the bill (H 3751) rewriting the voter-approved marijuana legalization law to the floor Thursday afternoon, but DeLeo told reporters after a roughly 90-minute Democratic caucus that the House will work to perfect the bill.
“Number one, I think there were some procedural issues that were raised earlier in the day to me and secondly although I’d have to say that the caucus I thought went very well, people expressed concerns,” DeLeo said. “There are certain things that we have to clear up and so because of that I think it’s important that with a bill of this magnitude that we try to get it right or as close to right the first time, and so I’d rather do that than rush it or try to rush it through tomorrow.”
DeLeo said the issues that need to be addressed include “some general clean-up stuff relative to language, the meaning of certain phrases” and unspecified procedural issues. He said he expects that lawmakers will still meet their self-imposed deadline of June 30 to get a bill to the governor’s desk.
Among the issues expected to be ironed out before the bill resurfaces next week is the proposed tax rate on marijuana sales.
The bill as written would raise the tax rate on retail marijuana sales from a maximum of 12 percent under the ballot law to 28 percent — a 16.75 percent excise tax on marijuana, a 5 percent local tax and the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.
But an error in drafting the legislation meant that the bill actually calls 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 products like edibles.
“That is not the intent of the legislation and we are currently working on a fix, among other issues,” Rep. Mark Cusack, who co-chairs the Marijuana Policy Committee, said. “Our goal here is an all-in 28 (percent) net effective tax rate capped and at the point of sale, not at wholesale. 28 percent, all-in and capped.”
Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Yes on 4 coalition and the Marijuana Policy Project, said he hopes the House puts more thought into the bill before scheduling it again for a vote.
“This was a poorly conceived and poorly drafted bill, and if the speaker’s action today results in a bill that shows more respect for voters and more respect for the process, then we will be happy,” he said Wednesday evening.
Asked for his thoughts on the bill released by the Marijuana Policy Committee earlier Wednesday, DeLeo said he thought the bill was “terrific.”
“I think if you take a look at the bill as a whole I thought it was a good bill and I think for the most part that was the general feeling of the folks,” DeLeo said. “This is a subject matter where it’s very difficult to get unanimous approval and high ratings from everybody.”
But even among members of the Marijuana Policy Committee, the bill released Wednesday was not met with strong support or enthusiasm. One committee member who cast a favorable vote in committee said he would oppose the legislation on the House floor unless substantial changes are made.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do some adjustments on the floor, we will be open to amendments,” Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, said at the executive session. “It is with deep reservation that I will be supporting this out of committee, but I will not at all hesitate to vote no on the floor, assuming tomorrow, if this bill continues in the shape and form it is in, and I will encourage my colleagues as well tomorrow, if things are not adjusted, to vote no on the floor.”
Several other representatives echoed Vega and said they want to see amendments adopted to the bill before the House votes on its passage.
Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat, said “there is most definitely some room for improvement in the current legislation,” and said he would weigh the comments of other committee members and “some of my own personal reservations on the legislation.”
Rep. John Velis, a Democrat from Westfield, stressed that his support for advancing the bill out of committee was a “procedural vote” in order to facilitate a full debate on Thursday.
“I will be voting in support of the bill today but I do want to point out I do have some of the same concerns that several people have raised, particularly Rep. Vega,” he said. “But I am really looking forward to a robust debate on this tomorrow.”
Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the Senate co-chair of the committee, said the bill “directly assaults the will of the voters and is a prescription for increasing the illicit market.”
Jehlen said the law approved by almost 1.8 million voters in November, and which the committee was tasked with altering, is preferable to the proposal put forward by the House.
She said the committee worked well together and that she and House co-chair Rep. Mark Cusask worked well with each other “up until quite recently.” Asked after the committee’s executive session what she meant by that, Jehlen said, “I think probably I’ve said enough.”
Jehlen and Sens. Linda Forry, Jason Lewis, James Welch and Vinny deMacedo all reserved their rights — similar to voting present — and Sen. Jamie Eldridge voted to give the bill an unfavorable report.
The Senate is expected to make its own marijuana bill available to members “very soon,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“They are already working on a version that they will put before their collegaues in the Senate,” Rosenberg said of the senators on the Marijuana Policy Committee. “We hope to release that very soon so that after the debate in the House is over, we will be able consider what they did, tweak what we did and then move on to the next stage of the process.”
Rosenberg said a tax rate of 28 percent “seems high to me” and that he was “quite surprised by a lot of the content” in the House leadership-backed bill.
“I think a lot of people think we need to tweak the bill, we do not need a major rewrite,” he said.
After avoiding marijuana policy issues for years, legislators vowed to rewrite parts of the ballot law after its passage last fall. Lawmakers said they hoped to preserve the intent of the legalization law while changing some key aspects that they worried were poorly written by the activists who brought the question to the ballot.
Though several provisions of the ballot law took effect mid-December — allowing possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and home growing of up to 12 plants — the Legislature and governor delayed the rest of the law by six months. Retail cannabis shops are expected to be licensed to open by July 2018.