June 25, 2017

On Beacon Hill: ‘Ambassadors of cannabis’ unite — kind of

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Marijuana activists, some of them sharing a few joints, gathered in front of the State House Wednesday, June 21, to protest the House marijuana bill scheduled for discussion that day. The Senate debated its own pot bill on Thursday, and conferees to work out a compromise bill were appointed Friday.

Recap and analysis of the week in local, state and federal government
from State House News Service

BOSTON — ZAP! BUZZZZZZZZ! That was the sound of the Massachusetts House and Senate touching what for years has been considered a politically hazardous “third rail” subject: marijuana.

The Legislature did what it has refused to do for years last week — talk in public about the leafy green intoxicant — but only because voters forced Beacon Hill’s hand and did the hard part of legalizing cannabis on their own. For lawmakers who thought activists were just blowing smoke all these years, the events of recent days were a reminder that ultimately, the voters call the shots.

About a year before voters legalized marijuana themselves, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, explained why, to that point, only one senator had agreed to serve on a special committee to study marijuana and why Beacon Hill avoided the sticky-icky ganja.

“Drugs are a third-rail issue in politics, and you don’t want to associate with it publicly because just studying it is enough for people to say, ‘Oh, he must be in favor of it because he is studying it,’ and people just avoid drug-related stuff,” he said.

The sudden zeal to alter the law drew the ire of activists, and like birds of a feather, various pro-marijuana factions flocked outside the State House to rail against legislative tweaking last week. Hoping to up the public pressure on lawmakers, a ballot campaign official even deputized those in the hazy crowd as “ambassadors of cannabis” who swore an oath to lobby their elected officials.

Inside the State House, it was mostly silent on Wednesday morning, as both branches did the bulk of their work in the afternoon and evening hours.

By the time the House got to work, on the longest day of the year, reps did what everyone’s mother would have yelled at them for: They sat around inside all day. The House gaveled in Wednesday at 11:45 a.m., but the first of the 118 amendments filed to the pot bill wasn’t taken up until 5 p.m.

Away from the House chamber, leadership sorted through the amendments and often determined their fate — puff, puff, pass — as the reps who filed them were bouncing around the room and satisfying their munchies with Swedish Fish and Twizzlers.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

The Marijuana Policy Committee was co-chaired by Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

In the absence of real debate, some reps became restless.

Rep. Kate Campanale, a Republican from Leicester, tweeted Wednesday afternoon, “So we just sat around for about 30 minutes doing nothing, and then we were called to recess. So glad that this process is efficient …” She later deleted the tweet.

Eventually, at about 9:40 p.m., the House did vote — by a margin of 126-28 — to pass its marijuana law rewrite and hand it off for the Senate to take a hit.

When the Senate gaveled in shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday, the House was still bogarting the bill, giving it one final review.

“I know that we eagerly await the arrival of legislation relative to the control of the adult recreational use of marijuana in our chamber as it is being finally processed in the chamber down the hall,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said, interrupted by Rosenberg banging his gavel.

Rosenberg asked, “Did he say awaiting papers from the House so that the Senate chamber, we may consume marijuana in the Senate chamber?”

“Mr. President, I know that may have been wishful thinking on your part,” Tarr responded. “But that was not what I said.”

By noon, the Senate had begun working through the 111 amendments proposed and wrapped up its work Thursday night at about 9:15 p.m.with a 30-5 roll-call vote.

The reconstruction of a law passed by nearly 1.8 million Massachusetts voters will be finalized by just six lawmakers [see below] who are tasked with hashing out a pot law that’s built to last.

After delaying parts of the voter law for six months, legislative leaders tied themselves to a self-imposed June 30 deadline to get a marijuana bill to the governor’s desk. That committee will work under the pressure of that deadline, a watchful and vocal public, and Rosenberg’s promise that Gov. Charlie Baker is “gonna love the final product.”

The first question the conference will have to answer is whether they are going to keep the ballot law — Chapter 334 of the Acts of 2016 — as a skeleton and “amend and improve” it (as the Senate says its bill does), or are they going to repeal and replace the voter-backed law, which the House bill does.

The House’s 28 percent and the Senate’s 12 percent tax rates will likely be reconciled with the Goldilocks method — one’s too high, the other too low, so settle on something in that “just right” middle ground.

Working through the issue of local control may be a bit stickier for the committee. The Senate maintained the ballot law’s requirement that a city or town can only ban marijuana facilities by a town-wide referendum, but the House gave that power instead to local elected and appointed officials.

Their compromise bill will have to clear both branches one last time before going to Gov. Baker for his signature, or amendment.

— Colin A. Young

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  • Watch: Jehlen talks about Senate, House additions to marijuana bill
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  • Senate poised to ban handheld cellphone use while driving


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