Budtender Kirsten Duncan refills plastic jars at Starbuds dispensary in Colorado in September, 2015. Massachusetts lawmakers are debating what Massachusetts recreational sales will look like. (Denver Post file)

Massachusetts House passes bill to “repeal and replace” voter-approved recreational marijuana law

BOSTON — A bill that would repeal and replace the recreational marijuana law approved by the state’s voters in November cleared the House late Wednesday. Critics who lashed out at the proposal accused lawmakers of ignoring the will of the electorate and taking a hostile approach to the legal cannabis industry.

The Senate was poised to take up its own version of the bill, one calling for more modest revisions in the current law, on Thursday, setting the stage for negotiations between the chambers over a final version lawmakers hope to send to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker by July 1.

The House bill, approved on a 126-28 vote, would raise the tax on retail marijuana sales from 12 percent to 28 percent.

Other provisions include stringent background checks and fingerprinting for all people who own or work in licensed marijuana-related businesses. The bill would create two new enforcement agencies, one within the Cannabis Control Commission, a five-member board that will regulate recreational and medical marijuana, and another within the state attorney general’s office. It also would establish standards for the testing, packaging and labeling of marijuana products, including edible ones, to assure those products are safe.

The bill would keep intact many elements of the current law such as those allowing adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow up to 12 pot plants per household. Retail marijuana stores could begin opening in cities and towns in the second half of 2018, but local governing bodies could move to ban or limit pot shops without first asking voters.

Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chairman of the Marijuana Policy Committee, argued at the outset of Wednesday’s session the bill makes “sensible and practical” improvements to the ballot question.

“What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular,” said Cusack, a Braintree Democrat. “This legislation gets it right. Right for the consumer, right for the industry and, above all, it gets it right for the people of (Massachusetts).”

The Senate proposal would keep the marijuana tax at 12 percent and maintain the current requirement of a vote by residents of a community before marijuana stores can be barred.

Hours before the House debated, several dozen pro-marijuana activists gathered outside the Statehouse to urge defeat of the bill.

“The message it sends is, ‘The will of the people be damned,'” said Will Luzier, who headed the November ballot question campaign.

Andy Gaus, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said under the House bill anyone working for a marijuana business is “presumed to be a criminal and will be treated that way.”

House leaders maneuvered behind the scenes during the day to avoid a contentious debate and win over wavering members.

An amendment was added to address concerns of black and Latino lawmakers who argued the bill weakened provisions designed to help minority-owned businesses gain a foothold in the cannabis industry. The amendment requires regulators to develop “diversity licensing goals,” and programs to recruit and train minorities and women to own or work in marijuana-related businesses.

Another amendment boosted from $30 million to $50 million the amount of marijuana tax revenues that would be directed toward substance abuse treatment programs.

Many lawmakers had argued the ballot question was written with the interests of the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry foremost in mind and paid too little attention to broader public safety and consumer-related issues.

Supporters of a higher marijuana tax say the revenue is needed to pay for regulating marijuana and enforcing the law.

Those advocating a lower tax say it would encourage consumers to buy the drug legally and hasten the demise of the underground market.

A 28 percent tax rate, Cusack said, would put Massachusetts in about the “middle of the pack” among the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana and below what is paid by consumers in Washington and much of Colorado.