Massachusetts Act to Tax and Regulate Marijuana

A regulated, taxed marijuana trade could help bolster the state’s economy, advocates for legal marijuana said today at a Revenue Committee hearing.

“Whether you like it or you hate it … it is undeniable in 2009 that marijuana has become inextricably embedded in our culture,” said Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney. “It is ubiquitous and it is ineradicable.”

Evans urged the committee to “put on your green eye shades and give close scrutiny to marijuana prohibition.” He asserted that the revenue the state could reap from a legalized marijuana industry could be comparable to the effect of introducing casinos, although he offered no supporting data.

During the hearing, lawmakers heard from a long line of lawyers, professors and young people who argued in favor of legalization, pointing to Massachusetts’s history as a leader on social issues and describing its potential to ease symptoms of Crohn’s disease or migraine headaches. Their testimony dominated the hearing, which also included on the docket bills to raise the alcohol excise tax and to reimburse cities and towns for tax exempt properties owned by non-profits.

Backers of legalization spoke on behalf of a bill (H 2929), filed by Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) at Evans’s request. The proposal would prevent “possession or cultivation of cannabis,” “gratuitous distribution of cannabis to an adult,” and “possession or distribution of cannabis under a valid license” from being considered violations of the law.

A preamble to the proposal states that the goal of the bill is “the reduction of cannabis abuse, the elimination of marijuana-related crime and the raising of public revenue.” The bill would establish a council to set up a grading system for marijuana quality and would ban additives, which supporters argued would ensure the health and safety of users.

The bill would impose various rates of excise taxes on marijuana retail sales, depending on the concentration of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana with the highest concentration of THC would be taxed at $250 an ounce, while lower concentrations would range from $150 to $200 in taxes. In addition, licenses to sell marijuana would cost $2,000 a year. Marijuana vending machine sales would be prohibited.

Lawmakers on the committee expressed skepticism but offered little in the way of opposition or support. Rep. Lew Evangelidis (R-Holden) wondered whether any other nations have a system of taxation and regulations of marijuana, and Rep. Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) asked advocates whether they would be confident in the government’s ability to set up a regulatory system.

Committee co-chair Rep. Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington) said he was surprised by one aspect of the arguments.

“This is probably the only hearing this committee has ever had or will ever have with this number of people asking to be taxed,” he said.

The discussion came nearly a year after Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing the threat of arrest with a $100 fine.

But advocates for legalization say decriminalizing possession still leaves open the question of where users would obtain marijuana, which they say is now done on an unregulated, often dangerous black market. They also highlighted the potential medical uses of marijuana and noted that California and Rhode Island were exploring issues surrounding legalization.

Rep. William Breault, a member of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, a Worcester-area organization that advocates for various public safety measures, said legalizing marijuana would be giving political validation to a dangerous drug that is often the cause of impaired driving accidents. He said that in California, where some dispensaries may legally sell medical marijuana, ancillary robberies, shootings and other crimes have resulted.

Breault said he is pursuing local efforts to raise fines for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to as much as $500.

Noting that driving under the influence of marijuana is already illegal, Rep. Evangelidis wondered whether rates of driving under the influence climb in areas in which marijuana can be obtained legally or with less restriction.

During the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana possession last year, law enforcement officials, the Patrick administration and various community groups formed a coalition that unsuccessfully sought to defeat the question. The coalition argued that decriminalization would cause a surge in violent crime, medical problems, impaired driving and youth drug use.

“Why would we want to put another monkey on society’s back?” Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley asked last year at a rally to oppose decriminalization. “There is no public health or public safety benefit.”

Other opponents of decriminalization included Gov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas Menino, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, the TenPoint Coalition, the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.

– Article from the Boston Herald on October 14, 2009.