Massachusetts Moves Toward a Fairer Marijuana Legalization Model

    On May 18, the Massachusetts House finally answered the calls of cannabis advocates, passing a number of sweeping marijuana reforms by a substantial margin. The final vote, of 153 to 2, landed on the same day the state announced it had surpassed $3 billion in adult-use cannabis sales.

    Although Massachusetts residents voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis in 2016—and sales began from licensed retailers in 2018—activists, consumers and business owners have been calling for significant changes to the model over the past few years.

    The new bill would allow local municipalities to approve marijuana cafes, as they exist in places like Amsterdam; ease the process by which people could erase cannabis-related convictions from their record; help applicants from the state’s Social Equity Program (SEP) by redirecting some of the tax revenue; and eliminate other financial hurdles. The State Senate previously passed similar legislation in April.

    “Our social equity program made the news … What has it really done beyond sell people false hope?”

    One crucial piece of ongoing criticism among advocates has concerned the state’s SEP, which was meant to provide assistance to cannabis entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war, but has not yet had sufficient funding.

    “Our Social Equity Program made the news, but how many people have actually been succeeding under it?” John Nathan, the owner of the Massachusetts-based Bay State Extracts, told Filter. “What has it really done beyond sell people false hope?”

    The House and Senate bills will now move to a conference committee, where legislators will hammer out the specifics and put a single bill up for a final vote. Republican Governor Charlie Baker, according to the Boston Globe, will likely have the opportunity to sign it into law by the summer.

    “Of course no passable bill can be a cure-all, but the House bill is a remarkably smart and thorough response to the pleas that small and historically excluded businesses have been making for years to give them a fair chance in the industry,” Shaleen Title, the former commissioner of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, told Filter. “The legislation is especially good in the way it addresses Massachusetts’ uniquely terrible local approval process—it creates a financial incentive by redirecting a percentage of tax from the state to the municipality, but only for dollars that come in from social equity businesses.”

    “It puts MA on the path to start correcting the past few years of rampant corruption at the local level.”

    “Combined with taking away fees altogether for municipalities that don’t act equitably, and strengthening authority for state regulators to make sure the municipal rules are fair, it puts MA on the path to start correcting the past few years of rampant corruption at the local level,” she continued.

    Though alike in many ways, the Senate and House bills do differ on some key elements—namely how much money from the state’s 10.75 percent excise tax on cannabis would be funneled to help fund SEP applicants. As the Globe noted, the Senate called for 10 percent, whereas the House doubled that percentage to 20. At the moment, only about two dozen of 250 or so such cannabis businesses are owned by SEP applicants.

    House Speaker Ron Mariano, a Democratic representative, said after the vote that the legislation will ultimately “create a fair and successful cannabis industry, fostering equitable opportunities to those disproportionately impacted by the systemic racism of historic drug policy.”

    “My guess is that a reasonably solid version of this bill will be signed into law,” Title said. “What worries me is the implementation process. Regulators will need to step up and enforce the strong protections in this law, and the volunteer cannabis social equity fund board will have a heavier lift than most people in those types of positions. For many small businesses in this state, their window of opportunity is closing.”

     


     

    Photograph via Libreshot/Public Domain

    • Alex is Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism Review, The Los Angeles Times and The New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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