Gov. Baker Signs Marijuana Bill into Law After Long Debate

Gov. Charlie Baker signed the reworked marijuana bill into law on Friday, July 28, after the House and Senate conducted long debates. His signature marks an 11-month period until pot shops can open up across the state—a timespan in which an entire administration will have to be built from scratch.

As quickly as this Tuesday, Gov. Baker, Treasurer Deb Goldberg and Attorney General Maura Healey have to appoint members to a voluntary advisory board along with members of a paid five-person commission that will oversee the expected billion-dollar marijuana industry in Massachusetts.

The State Legislature sent the voter-approved legal marijuana bill to the governor on Thursday, July 21—eight months after 1.8 million voters voted in favor of the law.

House and Senate negotiators planned to get the bill to Gov. Baker by June 30, but deliberations continued to drag on after disagreements arose over tax rates, local control, additional burden on law enforcement without added resources and more.

Both the House and the Senate accepted the conference committee report (H. 3818) on Wednesday, and they officially enacted it on Thursday.

“You have heard it is a combination of three bills; it is not,” said Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the lead senate conferee at the hearing. “It is a combination of law passed by the voters of two different referendums, the senate bill, the house bill and the regulations issued by the Department of Public Health.”

The Senate enacted the bill on a 31–6 vote, with Democrat Sen. John Keenan and Republicans Bruce Tarr, Vinny deMacedo, Donald Humason, Patrick O’Connor and Ryan Fattman voting no.

The bill includes a marijuana tax rate of up to 20 percent—a rate that is similar to the rate in Oregon, which legalized marijuana in 2014.

The vast majority of communities in Massachusetts voted to support legalization. In those communities, any ban or restriction on the number of marijuana establishments greater than those permitted under the ballot question can only be implemented by a referendum.

However, in communities that oppose legalization, the elected officials can ban or severely limit the production and sale.

“If we allow the particular measure in this Conference Committee to stand, we will effectively be saying because you voted one way or another on the ballot question as a community, you may or may not have the right to vote on what to do in terms of restricting the sale and distribution of marijuana,” said Sen. Tarr, the majority leader.

He continued, “Clearly suggesting that the outcome of one election is going to influence the ability to even have another one … I am deeply, deeply concerned about that.”

Sen. William Brownsberger, who served on the marijuana conference committee, disagrees. He said that the high turnout during the general election served as a good barometer of where residents stand.

“It is a novel approach,” said Brownsberger at the hearing. “It’s a novel approach to rely on the vote of a community to identify their preferences, but if you step back from it for a moment, it’s an absolutely totally commonsensical approach.”

In response to the argument that the bill would discriminate between two different kinds of communities and violate the equal protection clause, Brownsberger had one strong word—nonsense.

“The equal protection clause is designed first of all to protect vulnerable classes—race, sex, gender, creed, national origin. This is not a discrimination based on any one of those protected classes, and therefore, it is not subject to strict scrutiny by the courts,” said Brownsberger.

Both voter-approved laws have received a rewrite in the comprised bill. The original marijuana law had a 12 percent tax rate on marijuana and called for a three-member Cannabis Control Commission.   

The compromised bill expands the commission to five members and gives appointment power beyond the state treasurer to the governor and attorney general.

The new bill also rolls out the state’s medical marijuana program under the commission, rather than the state’s Department of Public Health. Medical marijuana will continue to remain untaxed.

The bill will also ensure confidentiality of records for those who use medical marijuana. Previously, patients have complained that their information was not secure under HIPAA.

Under the rewritten legislation, patients will no longer have to wait weeks after gaining permission from their doctors before they receive a registration card and access. The new version will provide electronic filing for certification to reduce waits. In addition, the bill extends the ability to recommend marijuana to patients to nurse practitioners and physicians.

“We don’t want it to take more than four years to open 12 retail outlets, as it did for medical marijuana,” said Jehlen. “Unless people can find a place to buy, the illicit market will continue to flourish.”

The opening of retail pot shops in Massachusetts is expected to occur in July 2018.

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