"Yes on 4," the group that led the ballot initiative that Massachusetts recreational marijuana use legal is asking the panel to wait to impose regulations. Pictured: Jars with varieties of marijuana for sale on shelves at a retail and medical cannabis dispensary, in Boulder, Colorado. (Denver Post file)

Massachusetts opens hearings on recreational marijuana regulation

BOSTON — Backers of legalized recreational marijuana urged Massachusetts legislators Monday to hold off, at least for now, on making any significant changes to a law voters approved in November.

The appeal came during the first public hearing held by a special legislative committee formed to review the law, which passed by a 240,000 vote margin and made Massachusetts one of eight states that allow adults to use recreational marijuana.

House and Senate leaders have promised to respect the will of the electorate. Yet lawmakers also have angered many marijuana advocates by making clear their willingness to consider a higher tax rate on legal marijuana sales and address other issues, including the ability of local officials to keep pot shops out of their communities; limits on the potency of edible marijuana; and further restrictions on homegrown marijuana, now capped at a dozen pot plants per household.

The group that led the ballot initiative, Yes on 4, said the Legislature should take a hands-off approach until a state regulatory board is in place and has a chance to formulate recommendations for lawmakers.

That board, known as the Cannabis Control Commission, has yet to be appointed.

“In no way are we trying to curtail any of your legislative duties,” insisted Jim Borghesani, spokesman for Yes on 4, when asked pointedly by the committee’s House chairman, Democratic Rep. Mark Cusack, why the panel should defer to regulators.

The Legislature already has moved to delay the opening of retail marijuana stores until mid-2018 at the soonest. Among dozens of other marijuana-related bills filed are proposals ranging from minor tweaks to the law to its outright repeal — the latter an extremely unlikely scenario.

The law imposes a 3.75 percent excise tax on top of Massachusetts’ normal 6.25 sales tax and an optional 2 percent local tax, adding up to a 12 percent maximum tax.

State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office is overseeing implementation of the law, called
the relatively low excise tax “an area of immediate concern.”

“It stands in stark contrast to the excise rates applied in other states, such as Washington at 37 percent tax rate, Colorado at 29 percent and Oregon and Alaska at 25 percent,” Goldberg said.

The treasurer and other state officials have questioned whether the current tax would generate enough revenue to cover the costs of regulating recreational marijuana.

Backers of the law counter that keeping the tax rate relative low — at least initially — would encourage consumers to visit legal marijuana establishments and help put illegal dealers out of business.

State revenue officials estimated the current tax would generate $64 million in the first year and $132 million in the second year, adding that it’s difficult to accurately project marijuana sales.

In a letter to the committee on Monday, the Massachusetts Municipal Association complained that local elected officials are being shut out of the marijuana licensing process. Under the law, pot shops can only be barred from a community through a voter referendum. The association urged a change that would allow local governing bodies, such as city councils or boards of selectmen, to decide those questions without a referendum.

Among those attending the standing-room only hearing were Paul and Dorothy Connors, a Holbrook couple who said they support recreational marijuana law and believe lawmakers should respect voters by leaving the law alone.

“Now they’re trying to change everything,” said Paul Connors. “It’s not right.”