A 28 percent tax on marijuana? That’s the plan under the latest bill
By Joshua Miller GLOBE STAFF JUNE 13, 2017
House leaders will unveil a bill Wednesday that would more than double the total tax on recreational marijuana and give municipal officials — instead of local voters — the power to ban cannabis shops and farms.
The legislation marks an extraordinary break with the 1.8 million Massachusetts voters who legalized marijuana through last year’s ballot.
The bill would also consolidate oversight of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana programs in one agency, enshrine restrictions on pot-infused edibles in law, set limits on marijuana advertising, and effectively strip Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg of her unilateral marijuana oversight authority. That’s according to an outline of the legislation and an interview with its author, Representative Mark J. Cusack of Braintree.
The Democrat said his bill respects the will of the voters while better protecting public health, public safety, and the best interests of the state.
“The voters voted to allow people 21 years of age and above to be able to access a regulated and safe marketplace. That is exactly what this bill does,” he said in his State House office. “The ballot question is fundamentally flawed. It needs to be improved, and that’s what this committee’s charge has been — to work through the different issues and come up with the best system possible for the consumer and the Commonwealth.”
The House bill wouldn’t change some basics of legalization. Adults 21 and over could still grow up to 12 marijuana plants per household. And they could still possess, use, and purchase the same limited amounts of marijuana. Under the bill, retail stores would still be on track to open in July of 2018.
But the tax on retail pot sales would be much higher.
The voter-passed initiative calls for a 3.75 percent state tax and 2 percent local option tax on pot sales, in addition to Massachusetts’ 6.25 percent sales tax. That’s 12 percent in total.
Under the House proposal, which is expected to be voted on and amended on Thursday, the total tax would be 28 percent. The math: 6.25 percent sales tax, a 16.75 percent state pot tax, and a mandatory 5 percent local tax that would go to city and town coffers.
Medical marijuana purchases would remain untaxed.
Current law says that if municipal officials want to stop a particular type of recreational establishment — for example, marijuana cultivation facilities — or all retail pot establishments, they must go to their voters. Local officials also need to hold a referendum if they want to sharply limit the number of marijuana shops in their jurisdiction. If a city has 100 retail stores that sell alcohol, for example, it will need to go to voters if it wants fewer than 20 marijuana retailers.
Under the House bill, local elected officials would have the ability to unilaterally limit or ban marijuana retails stores, cultivation facilities, testing hubs, and infused-product manufacturers (think marijuana cookies and candy).
The House is expected to pass some version of this bill Thursday and then send it to the Senate. That chamber will pass its own version of the legislation. The differences are set to be hashed out in a joint House-Senate conference committee. Legislators hope to send the final product to Governor Charlie Baker by the end of the month.
But the House’s push to more than double the tax rate sets up a tough battle with several entities.
For one, top senators have expressed deep reticence about increasing the pot tax, fearing that doing so would hamper efforts to kill the marijuana black market. After all, they say, some consumers are likely to buy the least expensive product, whether it’s from a dealer or a licensed store.
Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, told the Globe in April that she is comfortable with the tax rate as it currently exists.
The Somerville Democrat said there “may be a little room” for raising it, “but not a lot” because of concerns that people would continue to buy marijuana from the black market, or purchase it legally in states with a lower tax rate. (Maine’s total pot tax rate is set at 10 percent.)
Another opponent of more than doubling the pot tax rate could be Governor Charlie Baker, who won office in 2014 pledging not to raise taxes or fees. He remained circumspect on the issue Tuesday.
The November referendum set a January 2018 time frame for retail pot shops to open. But, in the quiet week after Christmas, with no public hearings and no formal public notice, lawmakers delayed the likely opening date for recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts by half a year — to July 2018.