Faced with a deficit in excess of $1 billion, Massachusetts is considering an addition to sin-taxed items such as alcohol and cigarettes: marijuana.
The Joint Committee on Revenue in the Massachusetts legislature held a public hearing Wednesday on bill H2929, “An Act to Regulate and Tax the Cannabis Industry,” though they have not yet reached a decision.
Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney, asked for the support of the committee for his bill to legalize and tax cannabis sales in Massachusetts.
Evans said he does not expect the bill to become law any time soon, but wants to continue to raise the question of legalization.
“I had no delusions about this bill happening,” he said. “The purpose was to spark some serious debate.”
Evans introduced a similar bill to the legislature in 1981, but it did not pass. He said he thought this bill might fare more favorably because of the economic climate and the passage of the marijuana policy initiative that passed as Question 2 on Nov. 2008’s state ballot. Question 2 made possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by only a small fine.
The bill would create a cannabis market similar to the alcohol market, Evans said. It would be regulated by a Cannabis Control Authority, appointed by the governor, which would issue licenses for farming, processing, import, sale and research of marijuana. It would be illegal for anyone under 21 years of age to possess or grow cannabis.
The authority would regulate the purity and caliber of cannabis, creating three grades based on the percentage of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The proposed tax ranges from $150-250 per ounce relative to the grade.
Massachusetts is suffering a $1.1 billion dollar deficit in the current year’s budget, and leaders in Gov. Deval Patrick’s office and the legislature are looking for any way possible to increase revenues and cut costs, Rep. Lewis Evangelidis, R-Holden, said.
“We are trying to be really creative in finding additional sources of revenue for the Commonwealth,” Evangelidis, a member of the Revenue Committee, said.
But, he said, the marijuana bill does not necessarily factor into this process.
“I don’t think that there is any real legislative support for the bill right now,” he said.
Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Arlington, also a member of the Revenue Committee, said he would support the bill with a few changes to appease the Attorney General’s public health concerns associated with legalization, such as an increase in accidents or underage use.
Evans proposed this bill under the premise that cannabis is already widely available in society, so the government might as well regulate and earn revenue from it.
“Whatever you may think of marijuana, whether you love it or hate it or fear it or are indifferent toward it, it is undeniable in 2009 that marijuana has become inextricably embedded in our culture,” he wrote in his testimony to the committee.
“Anyone who thinks this is trying to promote marijuana use is naïve,” he said, adding he does not think that legalization will increase the number of cannabis users.
There are similar pending initiatives for 2010 in California and Oregon as well as a senate-appointed commission in Rhode Island studying the benefits of cannabis taxation.
“This is an idea whose time will come, if it hasn’t already,” Kaufman said.
By Antoinette Jenna Pizzi
October 19, 2009
Daily Free Press