State Watch

Massachusetts governor signs bill to allow recreational pot

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has signed a new measure that sets in motion a nearly yearlong process to legalize marijuana for recreational use, after months of negotiations with the state legislature.

The law comes nine months after voters in Massachusetts and three other states approved ballot measures to allow recreational marijuana. The first recreational pot shops are set to open in July 2018.

"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," Baker said in a statement.

The new legislation makes significant changes to the initiative Bay State voters passed last year, increasing sales taxes on legal marijuana from 12 percent to 20 percent. The state will levy a 17 percent tax, while municipalities will issue their own 3 percent tax.

Massachusetts anticipates generating as much as $83 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales during the first year of legalization alone, the state Department of Revenue estimated earlier this year. Sales during the second year are expected to top out at more than $1 billion, generating tax revenue of up to $200 million.

Question 4 won approval from nearly 54 percent of Massachusetts voters last year. In a first-of-its-kind provision, local governments in cities and towns that voted against the ballot measure will be allowed to ban marijuana stores. In cities and towns where Question 4 passed, any bans on marijuana stores must be approved by voters.

Baker, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) and state Treasurer Deb Goldberg (D) must now appoint five members each to a state cannabis advisory board by Aug. 1. They have another month, until Sept. 1, to appoint members of the Cannabis Control Commission, the board tasked with writing rules and regulations for the legal marijuana industry.

The new law gives the commission until March to issue those regulations, covering everything from public advertising to cultivation, manufacturing, testing and sales of edible marijuana products.

Recreational pot shops may begin applying for licenses by April, and the first licenses will be issued in June, just weeks before the first stores are set to open.

Legal marijuana backers said they hope for a speedy regulatory process and an absence of further delays.

"We take elected officials at their word that there will be no more delays in implementation of the legal sales system," said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Question 4 campaign.

The other three states that passed recreational marijuana laws last year have moved faster than Massachusetts to set up their own legal frameworks. Pot sales became legal in Nevada last month, just seven months after voters approved a ballot measure last year. California plans to allow its first recreational sales in January 2018, while the first pot shops in Maine will open in February.

Marijuana is already legal for recreational use in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia.

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