This session, a bill to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol has been introduced by Rep. Rogers and Sen. Jehlen. Dubbed the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act of 2016, it resembles legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and other states, with a few major differences that fix many of the problems those states have seen. As there will inevitably be a question on legalizing marijuana on the ballot in 2016, this bill is an opportunity for the legislature to get the specifics right and for advocates to avoid a costly campaign.
Like the laws in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, the bill would legalize the possession and home cultivation of marijuana for adults over 21. It would also create a system of licensing and regulation for commercial sales that mimics regulations for alcohol and tobacco, with the bill specifically saying so in many provisions. For example, the introduction notes “the success of education and treatment instead of arrest and incarceration to reduce adult and adolescent use of tobacco and alcohol, two substances with far greater documented harm to public health than marijuana.” Also, the Department of Public Health is tasked with creating rules for the industry, with orders that “no regulation concerning the sale of cannabis and cannabis products shall require stricter provisions… than existing regulations for the sale of alcohol or tobacco products.”
However, the bill itself regulates marijuana much more strictly than alcohol in a few key ways. It forbids marijuana businesses from placing any ads “to promote or encourage the consumption of cannabis.” It’s unclear whether this would prohibit all advertising for dispensaries, or just ads that try to make marijuana use itself seem appealing. The bill also only allows marijuana to be sold in very specific units — one ounce, a half ounce, and a quarter ounce — and limits the number of retail permits to a maximum of 20% the number of liquor licenses.
Another quirk about the bill is that it taxes edible marijuana products significantly more than raw marijuana intended for smoking. With taxes set at $10 per serving of edibles and $50 per ounce of marijuana, which comes out to about 89 cents per joint, this tax structure will steer people away from edibles and toward smoking, which is more dangerous. If the bill does move forward, taxes on edibles should be lowered to fix these warped incentives.
Despite that shortcoming, the bill is actually much better than other states’ laws in some big ways. First of all, it creates a special license for establishments that allow customers to consume marijuana on the premises. This fixes the problem seen in Colorado, where visitors to the state can buy legal marijuana but, without private residences and with smoking banned in public spaces, have few places to legally consume it. This has led to a large increase in tickets for public consumption even as other drug-related charges have dropped.
Most importantly, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act of 2016 would also expunge the criminal records of everyone convicted of marijuana offenses that would become legalized under the new law. Those currently imprisoned solely for a marijuana offense can also apply to be released. This is an incredibly important mechanism, as it helps alleviate the long-term injustices of prohibition, which has disproportionately impacted low-income people and communities of color.
Between this bill and Senate President Rosenberg’s Special Senate Committee on Marijuana, legalization is going to be a major debate this session. The General Court has two choices: lead the nation as the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process, or sit on their hands and let advocacy groups craft a ballot initiative that will most likely become law next year.