BOSTON - Sheriffs urged state lawmakers Monday to boost the tax consumers will pay on recreational marijuana and earmark the additional revenue for substance abuse prevention and treatment.
The proposal was discussed at the final hearing of a special legislative committee that was set up to review the marijuana law voters approved in November. The panel is expected to issue recommendations by June.
"Not everyone will smoke responsibly, much in the same way many people don't drink responsibly," said Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane, who predicted an uptick in addiction and more arrests from driving under the influence of marijuana.
The law currently calls for a 3.75 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales, expected to begin in mid-2018. The excise would be imposed on top of the state's regular 6.25 percent sales tax, and local communities would have the option of tacking on an additional 2 percent tax.
The Massachusetts tax would be lower than those imposed in several Western states, including Colorado, Oregon and Washington, that previously legalized recreational marijuana.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen, co-chairwoman of the Legislature's Marijuana Policy Committee, said she believed many lawmakers were receptive to the idea of earmarking some revenue from pot taxes to addiction prevention and treatment. But Jehlen has been skeptical of boosting taxes, arguing they should be low enough to entice consumers to purchase the drug legally and not continue relying on the underground market.
Cahillane and Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi said nine of the state's 14 sheriffs are sponsoring a proposal that would boost the pot excise tax by 5 percent.
Advocates of legal marijuana have disputed claims that marijuana can be addictive or serve as a gateway drug to opioids and other more dangerous substances.
Jehlen said she's seen no evidence of a surge in addiction in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana.
Cocchi clarified: "I'm not saying everyone who smokes a joint is going to become an addict." But he pointed to his own experience of trying to cope with substance abuse through the county correctional system and the lack of financial resources available from the state to deal with the crisis.
"Let's earmark that money ... and start to make a dent in the substantial lack of services around the commonwealth," he said.
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