Story drafts legalization bill

By Matthew M. Robare


Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) introduced a bill to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana to the current session of the Massachusetts General Court last month. Last November, 69 percent of the Third Hampshire District voted in favor of a public policy question instructing her to support such a measure.

The bill, titled “The Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act,” was drafted by Richard M. Evans, an attorney from Northampton. The bill would legalize the possession, consumption and sale of marijuana for people over 21 and establish a series of licenses requiring annual fees. A cultivation license would cost $500 per year and enable holders to “possess, propagate, grow and cultivate cannabis and carry on such other horticultural activities as are reasonably required for the commercial cultivation of cannabis.” Growers, however, could only sell to the holder of a processing license. A processing license would cost $1000 and would only allow licensees to obtain marijuana from a cultivator or an importer. Processors would have to make sure each cannabis package had proper tax stamps, warnings about a $5000 fine for driving while under the influence of marijuana and a label indicating each strain’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level.

Processors would also only be able to process marijuana into one ounce packages. They could sell seeds to cultivators if the seed was “capable of producing cannabis preparations having a THC content of more than 0.5 percent.”A third step of regulation would create a stage called trade. People with trade licenses would be able to act as middle men, running warehouses and transporting processed cannabis to stores, for a yearly fee of $3000. Stores would need a retail license, purchased for $2000, and could only sell to “adults not visibly intoxicated or otherwise in such a condition as may present a threat to public safety” and could only sell cannabis indoors and at a location specified by the license. Import licenses would also be available, for $2500 a year, and combined cultivation-processing-retailing licenses would be available for the same amount, as long as the entire production process took place at one location.

Evans, a former National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) board member, said he first wrote the bill in 1981 “under the delusional view that what we needed was a plan.”

He said when he first submitted it to the legislature using the right of citizen petition, he went to a hearing on the bill on Beacon Hill with a few friends. “The room was packed with opponents,” he said. “We were grossly outnumbered.”

They were so outnumbered and the committee was taking the hearing so lightly that, when each side had finished its arguments, the chairman asked the audience to vote and the proposal was soundly defeated.

Evans again proposed the bill using citizen petition in the spring of 2009 and that time the bill was actually discussed by the committee – a first, he said. He added that they were respectful, too.

Legalization has gained more support in public discourse lately, as several states have passed laws permitting people to own and grow marijuana for medicinal use, and other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Massachusetts did so in 2008, with 65 percent voting in favor of it.

However, Evans is not optimistic about the bill’s chances.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the current legalization bill to become law,” he said. “I’m real pleased that Massachusetts is in the vanguard. I have to commend Rep. Story; it’s very courageous of her.

“The important thing is that all the details are up for discussion. Its purpose is to promote a smirk-free discussion. We’re shifting from a discussion of ‘why’ to ‘how.’”

The bill would also establish a Cannabis Control Authority composed of seven part-time directors appointed to seven-year terms with a salary of 20 percent of the governor’s, or about $28,600. Some of the directors would be appointed by the governor with the approval of the governor’s council, some of them would be appointed by the president of the state senate and some would be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Directors would be barred from serving for more than 14 years.

The authority would supervise the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, create the rules and regulations participants would be required to follow and be able to revoke licensees for not following regulations, although they would have to hold a hearing. The authority would have to approve all license holders and they would have to keep careful records and file monthly reports with the authority. There would be an excise tax of $10 per one percent of THC content per ounce, collected from the processors and “Subject to approval by the General Court, such excise shall be adjusted by the authority from time to time as necessary to maximize the revenue derived therefrom, and to minimize the incentive for the sale of cannabis not in accordance with the provisions of this chapter.” No municipality would be able to issue more marijuana retail and farmer-processor-retailer licenses than it could issue liquor licenses.

“We definitely support the bill,” said University of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition Treasurer Adam Freed. “We’re glad Ellen Story also got on board with it. This is obviously a big thing for us, because she’s a representative from Amherst. We’ve had some dealings with her in the past; she hasn’t always supported the legalization movement, but I think that she sees that her constituents in Amherst support the movement, especially after we voted . . . in favor of legalizing marijuana last year. We feel like for a representative to come forward with a legalization bill, it’s a big step.”

Evans shared that perspective.

“Hopefully it’s the first word and not the last word,” he said. “Think of it as a prototype, a concept car from Detroit.”

Evans said he believed the legislature “won’t touch the legalization bill with a 10-foot pole.” Many supporters of legalization, he said, are afraid to speak out for fear of being labeled as drug addicts, so he thinks a ballot initiative will be necessary to make legalization a reality. Evans said a successful ballot initiative would have to wait until 2014, because “substantially similar” proposals can’t be filed within four years of each other and he believes that Attorney General Martha Coakley would successfully challenge one in 2012 as being substantially similar to the decriminalization proposal.

Representatives for Governor Deval Patrick and Coakley were unavailable for comment, but both opposed decriminalization in 2008 on the grounds it would increase violent crime, traffic accidents and benefit drug dealers, according to reports in the Boston Globe from 2008.

Evans will be giving a talk on prohibition and what cannabis legalization activists can learn from efforts to repeal the 18th amendment in Campus Center Room 162 on February 28 at 7:00 p.m.

Matthew Robare can be reached at [email protected].