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Massachusetts Lawmakers Look to Change State’s Cannabis Law

Massachusetts State Flag on cannabis background

Legislators in Massachusetts are preparing for significant changes in the state’s voter-approved cannabis law as the retail industry grows. Dozens of new proposals to restrict, or expand, the use and sale of retail cannabis are being filed ahead of the two-year legislative session that began last month.

One of the primary focuses of Beacon Hill is to give law enforcement more authority towards targeting those suspected of driving while intoxicated on cannabis. Additional proposals would allow changing workplace rules regarding cannabis, as well as preventing private employers from testing employees for cannabis. “Businesses don’t test employees for alcohol, why should they be doing it for legal cannabis?” said Jim Borghesani, a consultant working in the cannabis industry and spokesman for the 2016 legalization campaign.

That said, there are many opponents to the legalization of cannabis in Massachusetts and they are doing everything they can to block it. One such roadblock the opposition to legalization would like to see happen is the extension of a 500-foot buffer between schools, daycare centers, and cannabis-based businesses. An additional block would ban advertising, branding, and marketing via giveaways, coupons, discounts, free, and promotional regarding cannabis.

“The commercialization of this drug is making a dangerous drug more harmful. And we’re dealing with a regulatory structure dominated by the cannabis industry, which has escalated the harms caused by this drug,” said Jody Hensley, a Massachusetts Prevention Alliance policy adviser.

Republican Governor, Charlie Baker, also an opposer of legal cannabis, has filed legislation that would see drivers who decline to submit urine, saliva, or blood, to the police, have their licenses suspended. Much like the laws currently in place for drunk drivers refusing the breathalyzer test.

Operating a motor vehicle under the influence of cannabis is illegal, and punishable by law. However, there is no current “implied consent” law in place in the state of Massachusetts that force stoners to submit to such tests.

Gov. Baker said, concerning legislation and the recommendations of a special panel, “will make Massachusetts safer and improve how police officers train for detecting the influence of intoxicating substances like marijuana, how they interact with motorists who show signs of impairment, and eventually how these cases are tried in a courtroom.” He also added, “There is plenty of evidence that no one should drive when they’re impaired, period, whether it’s alcohol or drugs of any kind.” His plan also would extend the open container law for the state to include cannabis.

Advocates of cannabis, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts say that they support reducing impaired driving. However, they do not agree with comparing the laws for cannabis to those for drunken drivers. “The problem is that these tests are not admissible in court. Until we have a test that is scientifically proven to determine impairment, we shouldn’t be applying operating under the influence laws to marijuana,” Borghesani said.

Jason Lewis, Democratic senator of Winchester, has also introduced a proposal that would require new cannabis regulation. The bill would set limits on the potency of cannabis products similar to laws already in place for alcohol such as beer and wine. Jim O’Day, another Democratic representative, has proposed to increase the age for buying cannabis from 21 to 25.

The Marijuana Prevention Alliance has suggested that research shows negative impacts on mental health on youth and adults from cannabis use. “The harms of high potency cannabis use to mental health is becoming clear. This should give everyone pause,” a representative of the Alliance said. Another proposal, this one filed by citizens, seeks the repeal of recreational pot altogether. Another proposal requests the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to rule on the legislation’s constitutionality.

All that taken into consideration, the 2016 voter-approved cannabis law allows 21-year-old adults and older to possess as much as 10 ounces of the herb. It also allows the regulated sale and cultivation of cannabis. Since November, nine retail locations have opened for business. As many as four to eight more stores are expected to open each month, say local regulators.

In 2017, legislators made changes to the year-old law, requiring an additional 10.75 percent sales tax to be added onto the 6.25 percent sales tax already in place by the state. Also, lawmakers gave individual communities the ability to tack on another 3 percent excise tax on the retail sale of cannabis.

Furthermore, cities may also charge an impact fee. These fees are related to the costs of hosting a cannabis business. The fees may not exceed 3 percent of the business’ gross revenue and may last no more than five years.

The impact fee has had some backlash from cannabis advocates, complaining that communities are charging honest cannabis businesses far too much. That said, these advocates are now supporting bills to restrict these fees and giving more power to state regulators over hosting agreements. “There are communities that are assessing fees on marijuana businesses that go well beyond the scope of the law. We need to even the playing field,” said Borghesani.

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