BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Legislature approved a six-month delay of several key provisions in the state's new recreational marijuana law, including the licensing of pot shops, angering backers of the voter-approved measure.
The House and Senate passed the bill without a public hearing and without debate during lightly attended, informal sessions in both chambers Wednesday.
The ballot initiative that allows adults 21 and over to possess and use limited amounts of recreational marijuana and grow as many as a dozen pot plants in their homes was approved by 53.7 percent of voters on Nov. 8 and took effect on Dec. 15. The action by lawmakers doesn't change that. But what it's almost certain to do is push back the timetable for opening retail marijuana stores from the beginning of 2018 until the middle of that year.
For now, it remains illegal in Massachusetts to sell pot except to registered medical marijuana patients.
"The Legislature has a responsibility to implement the will of the voters while also protecting public health and public safety," said Senate President Stan Rosenberg.
Delaying key deadlines for six months will give legislators more time to "improve" the current law by considering issues that were not included in the ballot question, Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, both Democrats, said in a joint statement.
The group Yes on 4, which sponsored the ballot measure, said it was "very disappointed" in the Legislature's vote, noting it came with little advance notice or public input. Only a handful of lawmakers were present in both chambers when the bill was gaveled through on Wednesday.
While they would be willing to consider technical changes in the law, "our position remains that the measure was written with careful consideration regarding process and timelines and that no major legislative revisions are necessary," the sponsors said.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who strongly opposed the ballot question, said Wednesday he would review the bill before deciding whether to sign it. Baker recently told reporters he would respect the will of voters but was open to delaying implementation of the law for a "reasonable time period."
Among the key deadlines that would be put off six months include the current March 1 deadline for state Treasurer Deb Goldberg to appoint a cannabis control commission to oversee the recreational marijuana market; a Sept. 15 deadline for the commission to approve detailed regulations; an Oct. 1 deadline for accepting applications for retail marijuana outlets, and the Jan. 1, 2018, deadline for licensing the first pot shops.
The bill passed Wednesday would also require the state Department of Public Health to commission a detailed study of marijuana usage in Massachusetts and the possible impacts of the new law.
Several lawmakers, including Rosenberg, have expressed concern that the 3.75 percent state excise tax currently in the law would be too low to cover regulatory and enforcement costs. Baker has suggested the possible need for more local control over pot shops and limits on the potency of edible marijuana products.
Voters in California, Maine and Nevada also approved recreational marijuana initiatives last month, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska where it had previously been legalized.