THE LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE shaping the state’s new marijuana law wrapped up its final session of hearings Monday with an impassioned plea from a convicted drug felon to change the laws to allow him to grow and distribute marijuana to legal sellers.
“What I did was a mistake,” said Sean Berte of Boston, who said he was convicted and served time for a federal offense of manufacturing marijuana. He said he is an expert marijuana grower who can benefit from the industry coming to Massachusetts if he’s allowed to participate. “I am looking at plying my trade. I don’t want to be left out. I am grasping at straws, quite literally.”
Lawmakers are considering changes to the referendum passed by voters in November legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana. Among the bills the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy is considering are proposals to expunge past records of those convicted of marijuana-related offenses before it was decriminalized and since it’s been made legal in the state.
Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is running against Mayor Marty Walsh, who opposed the ballot question, was among those who testified that passing such a law would provide valuable employment opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses involving marijuana.
“The people that got locked up shouldn’t be locked out of an opportunity to work this industry,” Jackson said. Allowing past offenders to work in the new industry, he said, “would be poetic justice for those who have transferable skills.”
While the proposed changes would allow those convicted in state court to work in the marijuana industry, they would do nothing for people like Berte who have been convicted in federal court.
“An expungement won’t help me,” he said.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, the Senate co-chair of the committee, said Berte’s testimony was “compelling,” and she acknowledged the need to address the conflicts between state and federal laws.
The hearing was the last of five the committee held around the state on more than 50 measures offered to amend the law. Aside from the efforts to clean-up the records of offenders, much of the focus was on the potential revenue that will be produced by the industry. Though legislators gave no indication where they would wind up on a tax rate, which is currently set at 3.75 percent in addition to the state sales tax of 6.25 percent, it will likely be raised in the final bill.
Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree, the House co-chair of the committee, said he wants to find the “sweet spot” between what the current law levies and a higher rate that still doesn’t make the purchase of legal pot so costly that it drives buyers to the black market.
Two sheriffs from western Massachusetts urged lawmakers to earmark a portion of the revenue to in-jail substance abuse treatment, saying legalization will increase the number of people getting hooked on drugs.
“The continued use of marijuana can lead to addictions,” said Hampshire Sheriff Patrick Cahillane. “There will be an increase with associated criminal activity – that we know from history.”
Hampden Sheriff Nick Cocchi said he agrees with maintaining a reasonable level of taxation as long as some it is directed to “where the rubber meets the road” in jails and prisons treatment programs.
“We cannot overprice and overtax legalization of marijuana,” Cocchi told the panel, which had sparse lawmaker turnout because of budget votes in the House and a formal session in the Senate.
There was some testimony on what shape a regulatory body should take. The referendum passed by voters puts the power in the hands of the state treasurer to appoint and oversee a three-member Cannabis Control Commission, but several proposals seek to either expand that body with appointments from the governor and attorney general or remove it from the treasurer’s office completely.
Cusack, who wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker urging the administration to withhold funds intended to start the transition in the treasurer’s office, said he remains steadfast in support of taking the treasurer out of the regulatory equation. He dismissed the idea that because the office regulates and oversees the alcohol industry it would have a leg up in overseeing the emerging pot business.
“It was placed in the treasurer’s office for purely political reasons and no real regulatory reasons,” Cusack said after the hearing about the treasurer’s oversight of the alcohol business. “They can say marijuana is like alcohol all they want, but marijuana is like marijuana. It is a unique substance and requires a unique licensing process and that’s what we’re looking for – how to get this right and have real experts involved going forward.”
The committee is planning to have a bill ready by the middle of June and on Baker’s desk by the end of July, a full year before licenses are set to be issued.