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Governor Signs Re-Written Marijuana Bill
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
04:00PM / Friday, July 28, 2017
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Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill on Friday.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Gov. Charlie Baker signed updated marijuana regulations into law Friday.
 
Voters had passed the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in November and since then lawmakers have been reworking the law, which included a six-month delay. After negotiations between the House and Senate, the Legislature passed changes to the citizen's referendum on July 20, which was then signed on Friday.
 
"We appreciate the careful consideration the Legislature took to balance input from lawmakers, educators, public safety officials and public health professionals while honoring the will of the voters regarding the adult use of marijuana," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a release issued Friday.  
 
"We look forward to appointing members of the Cannabis Control Commission and the Cannabis Advisory Board to join us in working with Treasurer Goldberg, Attorney General Healey, local officials, law enforcement and all other stakeholders involved to implement the enhanced law safely and responsibly throughout the Commonwealth."
 
Locally, one particular change in the legislation that'll impact the Berkshires is that the law passed by voters did not classify marijuana cultivation as an agricultural use and now is. State Sen. Adam Hinds said agriculture is an area where the Berkshires has an "advantage" because of the number of farmers and open space. The bill signed by governor now allows for local farmers to grow marijuana and hemp.
 
"That's an industry that has been suffering," Hinds said of farming in general.
 
The Pittsfield Democrat said he had filed amendments to the law to "break down the barriers" holding farmers back. His amendments include leveling the playing field for the cultivation of hemp and lowering some of the fees a farmer would have to pay in order to get the licenses required. The bill calls for a sliding scale for licensing based on the size of the farm.
 
"Folks who were already participating in the medical marijuana field we able to cross the starting line two years ahead," Hinds said. "We wanted to make sure cultivators here could participate without barriers."
 
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said as the debate over the bill rolled out over the last eight to 10 months, a local farmer had really shown him the benefits of hemp as both a product but also an economic opportunity. 
 
"[The new bill] considers marijuana as an agricultural product. So that allows farmers to get into that business," Pignatelli said.
 
Farley-Bouvier also praised that change, allowing a new industry to grow. In the Berkshires, with lots of open space, there is an economic opportunity for local farmers to get into that market. 
 
Another sticking point in the law was the amount the product should be taxed. Friday's bill ups the amount of tax on the product from 12 percent on the referendum to 20 percent. That includes increasing the local tax from 2 percent to 3 percent.
 
"Pittsfield will be able to pass regulations and collect revenue," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. 
 
The level of tax had been of much debate. Lawmakers were trying to find a balance of receiving enough revenue from it while being low enough to discourage black market sales. The compromised position has a 10.75 percent state excise tax, 6.25 percent state sales tax, and a 3 percent tax from the local communities. There is also an optional impact fee which could be negotiated by a host community, which is capped at 3 percent.
 
"It was difficult to take the lead from other states because as this bill was in Conference Committee other states were altering their tax rates," Hinds said, expecting that finding the exact balance may take some more tinkering over time.
 
Farley-Bouvier feels the 20 percent is the right amount. She said there will be required labs to test marijuana products and she wants those to be well run, and the 20 percent tax is enough to do that, she said. 
 
Pignatelli still remains concerned that it could be too much. 
 
"I personally think the tax rate it a bit high. We can't tax our way out of this ... we have to remain competitive [to drive out the black market]," Pignatelli said. 
 
The Lenox Democrat has been the most vocally locally against marijuana, opposing the ballot question. But he said the changes to the bill alleviates some of his concerns, particularly when it comes to edibles and packaging. 
 
"I'm not a big fan of marijuana but this respects the will of the voters," Pignatelli said. 
 
He next wants to roll out a larger education program to help families understand the negative effects of marijuana. He doesn't want to see children feeling that smoking marijuana is a good thing.
 
"It is getting into schools and getting kids to understand marijuana usage and getting families to understand it," Pignatelli said. 
 
The marijuana industry will be governed by a five-member Cannabis Control Commission, under state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg's office, and a 25-member Cannabis Advisory Board with five appointees from the each the governor, treasurer, and attorney general. The rest will be ex-officio appointees with relevant knowledge. On Friday Goldberg appointed Norton Arbelaez, Dr. Alan Balsam, Michael Dundas, Jaime Lewis, and Shanel Lindsay to the advisory board.
 
The Cannabis Control Commission will be charged with overseeing applications and licensing processes and create rules for implementation and enforcement of adult-use marijuana. That includes oversight of testing laboratories to ensure marijuana establishments are meeting requirements for purity. It also oversees standards for packaging.
 
"We're not advertising on Saturday morning cartoons for marijuana," Farley-Bouvier said, praising the regulations in the new bill which limits companies from advertising the product to markets where the 85 percent of the audience is over the age of 21. 
 
The law also bans retail shops near schools, edibles cannot resemble non-marijuana food products currently sold, and labeling must indicate that the product contains marijuana the amount of THC in it. Farley-Bouvier likened the restriction to those on medical marijuana, where laws require that the prescription medicine looks like prescription medicine.
 
Hinds said some of the revenue the state gets will go toward substance abuse services, awareness campaigns, and restorative justice programs. He added there is a piece of "social justice" in that communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs have a greater opportunity to benefit from the revenues.
 
The senator also said there is a provision allowing those who were convicted of a marijuana crime in the past, which wouldn't be illegal now, those records can be sealed.
 
The law signed on Friday also gives cities and towns the ability to ban or limit the development of marijuana establishments. For the towns in the state which voted against the ballot question, elected officials can ban facilities from town. For towns where the majority voted for it, then a townwide vote is needed to ban establishments.
 
For adults, the bill allows for those over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce in public and 10 ounces at home. Individuals can also grow up to 12 plants or 10 ounces in their homes.
 
"This bill reflects a commitment to legalizing adult-use marijuana while upholding our duty to ensure safety and effective management,"  said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in a statement last week. "In addition to the rigorous product testing and security measures, I believe that the independence of the Cannabis Control Commission will allow this new industry to be implemented in a safe manner that works for all residents, not just the marijuana industry."
 
Lawmakers had come to the agreement after a six-month delay. Retail shops were supposed to be opening in January of 2018, but lawmakers pushed that back in order to complete the bill, appoint the Cannabis Control Commission, and get regulations in place before applications were approved. Pignatelli said there is "no doubt" that the delay helped create a better bill.
 
"I think it was a good delay and a better bill because of it," Pignatelli said. 
 
Farley-Bouvier said even with the delay, the Legislature moved "lightning quick" with it.
 
"Legislation takes time. In the world of the Legislature, this moved in a lightening quick manner," Farley-Bouvier said.
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