Massachusetts Pot Law Finally Enacted: The Details

By now most people are aware that Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed the House-Senate Conference Committee bill on the new pot law, which hammered out differences the two chambers wanted to make in the ballot law that voters passed last November, legalizing recreational use of cannabis in Massachusetts for persons age 21 and older.  Here are the details on the provisions of the new law:

Limits on homegrown and personal possession of marijuana :  Anyone over 21 years of age can possess 10 ounces of cannabis inside their primary residence, and a maximum of up to 12 marijuana plants in the home.  Outside the home, the possession limit is 1 ounce, or not more than 5 grams of marijuana concentrate.  A person can also gift up to 1 ounce to another person. For persons under 21, it is also now no longer a crime for them to grow cannabis in their home.  If they are found to do so by police (a situation rather hard to envision,) they will face a civil offense if found to possess less than two ounces of pot, whether found inside or outside their residence.  Possession of more than 2 ounces does remain a crime for persons under 21.  However, if anyone under the age of 18 is found to possess less than two 2 ounces of pot, in addition to a civil fine the minor will be required to complete a drug education program.

However, whatever your age, don’t light up in public:  It’s still not permitted. You can smoke in your own home, but if you’re a renter things get more complicated, especially if any federal subsidies are involved, as – ridiculously – cannabis remains illegal under federal law.  As a Norfolk County, Massachusetts drug offense lawyer, I can assure readers that this is going to get very sticky, because over 829,000 people in Massachusetts rent, not own.

Prior convictions for marijuana use or possession can now be sealed – but as a Massachusetts drug crimes attorney, I caution people who want to do this, “right away”:  There are upsides, and downsides to sealing a prior criminal record:  On the one hand, the record is sealed and most people won’t know the details of the matter.  On the other hand, the mere fact that a person has sealed a criminal record can lead to speculation about what the offense was, and this can sometime hurt more than help someone, especially as concerns career and employment.

To begin with, retail pot sales will not begin until July 2018, even though the 2016 ballot measure targeted January 2018. Legislators claimed they need this additional time to “get things right.” For people who want to work in a recreational pot shop, the new law will require full background checks for employees of both retail stores.  But if an applicant has a prior drug possession offense, that person will not automatically be barred from working in the new pot industry.  Cannabis bought at any recreational pot shops will be taxed at up to 20 percent.  Leave it to  Massachusetts legislators to spike it to almost 20 percent from the voter-approved 12 per cent.  The breakdown works as follows:  The straight sales tax will 6.25 percent; then another 10.75 percent excise tax, then an additional 3 percent “local option” tax that cities and towns can tack on if they wish to.

Cannabis edibles will not be allowed – for now, anyway.  A new state agency in the law that Gov. Baker signed, the Cannabis Control Commission, will construct regulations for advertising and packaging over the next few months governing pot edibles, which will require a separate application for recreational pot shops to sell pot edibles.  Other requirements will include:

If the new pot law applies state-wide, what determines whether cities and towns can ban or restrict pot shops?

Here’s where the Legislature used some common sense, a rarity on Beacon Hill: Of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, 91 of those (or about 28 per cent of all municipalities) voted against Question 4. Here’s a list of them:  http://trib.al/xa3bxWi.  Those specific communities will not be required to hold a voter referendum to restrict recreational retail pot shops; the law signed by Gov. Baker allows local officials to do that on their own.  However, any communities wishing to ban ban retail cannabis shops, must do so prior to Dec. 31, 2019.  But here’s where the Legislature once again blew it:  The compromise legislation should have contained language that required any cities and towns that voted to ban retail pot stores, to also forego any increased local (financial )aid from the state, that they might have otherwise received from tax revenues generated by retail pot sales elsewhere in the state.  The translation?  If you want to ban retail pot stores in your community, fine – but don’t expect to receive any increased state aid from the new taxes on cannabis.  If these cities and towns want to be on their own, fine – that’s includes no revenue from recreational pot sales.  For the balance of the 260 communities that voted “yes”  last November, a special voter referendum would be required before local officials could ban or restrict retail pot shops.

I don’t believe the Legislature should have interfered with the voter-approved 2016 law.  But nonetheless, at least the end result represents progress in deconstructing an overwhelmingly unjust part of Massachusetts drug laws.