The vote to create a state law legalizing recreational marijuana is only a few days old, but Beacon Hill lawmakers are wasting no time floating changes and regulations before retail operations can be set up.
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg asked Wednesday for more time to implement the new law. Under the language passed by voters Tuesday with 53.6 percent of the vote, Goldberg's Treasury will set up a new Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the sale and taxation of marijuana similar to how the state's Alcohol Control Board oversees beer, wine and spirits.
Goldberg said the timeline for implementation is critical to bringing the right regulations to the market.
"We're going to get this right. We want the public to feel safe," Goldberg said, citing concerns parents, law enforcement officials and others expressed throughout the campaign about edible marijuana products and public safety.
"If we can do this correctly. If we have the resources to do it correctly, we have the time to get it right, which we can, then I believe that we can build greater confidence in the public and work with local communities to make it something that when it gets down to brass tactics is not scary when people realize that a retail store can open up right next to their CVS or their Walgreens," Goldberg said.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg does not want to tap the breaks on implementation. He told reporters Thursday he wants to move fast to draw up a regulation bill to put before Gov. Charlie Baker.
"We have the right to do that. We should not dillydally. This needs to be implemented in a reasonable time because that respects the will of the voters," Rosenberg said.
Advocates for the ballot measure want an unimpeded process to set up the commission and get the market structure in place before applications can be sorted out for retail operations in the coming years.
"Actually implementing a law is different than campaigning and a lot of the concerns that have come up around the campaign for legalizing marijuana here in Massachusetts will absolutely be addressed in the process of writing regulations that dictate the specifics of how the program's going to work," said Matt Allen with the Massachusetts ACLU.
Allen said proponents want the law to go through as voters approved it, with the Commission setting up guidelines and regulations itself without interference from lawmakers or Baker.
Rosenberg said voters decide complicated ballot issues like this on principal and not the specifics of the plan, so the Legislature should fill in the gaps the ballot question left unanswered.
"The legislature has the right to revisit policy matter that either were unaddressed or perhaps not addressed as well as they could," rosenberg said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who was, like Baker, an opponent of the ballot measure, said through a spokesman after the election that he will "respect the vote of the people." DeLeo plans to discuss implementation with his members, the governor and Rosenberg.
The biggest issue Beacon Hill leaders want to tackle is the tax rate charged at the sale of marijuana products. The ballot question calls for an effective tax rate of 12 percent for the state: 6.25 percent normal sales tax, 3.75 percent in marijuana-specific excise tax and an additional 2 percent levied by cities and towns that opt in. That's just not going to be enough to cover the costs of setting up the commission and establishing regulations, according to Goldberg and Legislative leaders.
"Everyone recognizes the limited amount of revenue streams that seem to be coming from the actual ballot question, that that is a reasonable thing to be thinking about," Goldberg said, adding that the cost of starting up the commission could be costly.
Allen said establishing the Cannabis Control Commission should not require excessive amounts of revenue. The application process, Allen said, may require more money, but the fees charged applicants should cover it.
Altering the tax rate on marijuana sales is another matter. Allen agreed that it's the Legislature's prerogative if they want to wade in and raise the tax and not that of the new commission. The Legislature and Baker will have to tread lightly though, as Allen warned of consequences for stifling the new industry and consumers with burdens.
"If taxes are too high and if regulations are too tight, that will drive consumers to the illicit market which will undermine the intent of the initiative. So it is a matter of striking the right balance," Allen said.