Legislators return to the Massachusetts State Capitol on Beacon Hill in Boston in January. (Chris Thomas, The Cannabist)

Critical decisions about Massachusetts marijuana in hands of lawmakers

Legislature to grapple with several aspects of newly-legalized recreational marijuana

BOSTON — The new year means the start of a brand new two-year session for the Massachusetts Legislature with all signs pointing to a busy agenda for lawmakers in the months ahead.

Nagging fiscal problems, calls for changes in the criminal justice system and disagreements around the state’s new recreational marijuana law are among major challenges the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker are likely to face.

Lawmakers return to Beacon Hill Jan. 4 against a backdrop of national and global uncertainty surrounding the incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington.

State politics could also play a role with Baker eyeing a likely re-election bid in two years.

A look at three contentious issues that could keep lawmakers busy in the early months of the 2017-2018 session:

STIRRING (THE) POT

Legislative leaders and Baker have strongly hinted that the voter-approved law allowing adults to possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use and grow as many as a dozen pot plants at home may undergo revisions.

But exactly what changes do they have in mind?

Some Democratic lawmakers want to increase the 3.75 percent excise tax that will be applied to retail marijuana sales when pot shops open (likely in 2018). They note that Colorado and other states that previously legalized the drug impose much higher tax rates. Those who back the lower rate say it will hasten the demise of the underground marijuana market.

Baker is among those who have suggested the Legislature examine limits on the potency of edible marijuana products, and give cities and towns more power to restrict the opening of retail marijuana outlets in their communities.

State treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office is charged with overseeing the recreational pot law, has asked for an extension of regulatory deadlines including the establishment of a Cannabis Control Commission. The group that sponsored the successful ballot question has called on lawmakers to leave the current deadlines intact.

BUDGET WOES

Sluggish tax revenue growth, despite historically low unemployment rates, continues to vex Beacon Hill budget-writers. And that could lead to some showdowns over taxes and spending.

Many Democrats including Senate President Stan Rosenberg contend that new taxes may be needed to adequately fund education, transportation, health care and other state programs. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has opposed new taxes in the past, but has made a point not to rule them out in the coming session.

No one has indicated what form a tax increase might take. While he would consider ending certain tax breaks or closing loopholes, Baker says he’d almost certainly veto any new broad-based taxes on Massachusetts residents.

DeLeo and Rosenberg, meanwhile, sharply criticized the governor for unilaterally cutting $100 million in executive branch spending this month. A move by lawmakers to restore some of that funding is possible early in the coming session.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

A review of the Massachusetts’ criminal justice system conducted by the Council of State Governments is expected to wrap-up in January with a final report and a set of recommendations, focusing on keeping ex-convicts from committing new crimes and returning to jail.

Many advocates for criminal justice reform say that approach doesn’t go far enough, and they want lawmakers to also address strategies aimed at keeping people out of prison in the first place. Those could include the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, changes in the bail system and raising the current $250 threshold for which a larceny is treated as a felony.