With a bill altering the voter-approved legal marijuana law expected by the end of the month, marijuana activists held a rally on the State House steps Wednesday to tell lawmakers to leave the law as it is.
For more than 20 years, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition and the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws attempted to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts, activist Bill Downing said, and for more than 20 years the Legislature ignored the subject.
"They had the opportunity to pass a marijuana legalization bill and they could have written it any way they wanted to. But they abrogated that responsibility," Downing said. "We, the voters of Massachusetts, were able to change the law ourselves. And of course, as soon as the law was passed our legislators said, 'Wow, you guys wrote that law. We don't like it when you guys write your own laws and it's an insult to us and it's an affront to our egos ... so as soon as it's written and voted for, we're going to tell you it's a crappy law.'"
This year, legislative leaders created the Committee on Marijuana Policy to produce a bill changing the ballot law written by marijuana advocates and approved by Massachusetts voters in November. After that vote, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker quickly delayed implementation of most of the bill by six months, though it has been legal since December for an adult to use, possess or gift marijuana.
The committee expects to release its recommendations by the end of the month, and the activists outside the State House wanted to send a message that significant changes to the law will not be welcome.
"The new law will be changed and this is our last chance to influence the changes to our law," Jeff Morris, a member of the MassCann/NORML Board of Directors, said before many of the ralliers ventured inside the State House to talk with lawmakers.
Lawmakers over the years have largely avoided altering ballot laws, but they seem eager to change the marijuana law and that's likely to trigger constant debate over whether their recommendations go too far.
Reps. Denise Provost and Mike Connolly each spoke at Wednesday's rally in support of a bill (H 3195) Provost filed to remove restrictions on farming cannabis, remove limits on personal adult possession, authorize marijuana farmer's markets, and limit the bureaucratic aspects of marijuana oversight.
Downing said he expects that the committee will "make a lot of limitations."
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.
Both committee chairs — Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen — said they have no specific number or range in mind for an appropriate tax rate. But Cusack predicted at the outset of the committee's work that it will be "a major balancing act" to find the sweet spot where marijuana sales bring in enough revenue to support the regulatory system but do not make it cheaper for users to return to the illicit market.
The committee has also considered potentially removing oversight of the marijuana industry from Treasurer Deborah Goldberg's purview and creating a more independent commission in the style of the Gaming Commission.
The ballot law charged Goldberg's office with overseeing the three-member Cannabis Control Commission, but legislative leaders signaled significant interest in restructuring the oversight model. Goldberg has said removing marijuana oversight from her office would lead to missed deadlines.
The marijuana advocates behind the ballot question -- the Yes on 4 Campaign, backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project -- have said the most problematic potential changes to the ballot law include allowing marijuana establishments to be prohibited from a town by a vote of the selectmen rather than town referendum, raising the legal age to buy, possess and use marijuana, and reducing the amount of marijuana an adult can grow at home.
Cusack and Jehlen were not made available to speak with the News Service on Wednesday, but legislators had eyes on the ralliers.
Representatives from the Marijuana Policy Committee and the Senate president's office observed some of Wednesday's rally from a distance.