Metro

Rewriting the pot law was a breeze compared to what comes next

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2014, file photo, medical marijuana is rolled into a joint in Belfast, Maine. The pot legalization campaign is pushing back against efforts for a 20 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales ahead of legalization in 2018. Lawmakers are pondering the best way to tax pot to bring in state revenue and discourage the black market. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, file)
AP/File

It took Massachusetts lawmakers eight months to rewrite the voter-approved marijuana legalization law.

That was the easy part.

Governor Charlie Baker is set to sign the recreational pot measure on Friday, setting in motion a high-stakes, 11-month sprint to license retail marijuana establishments by next summer and regulate what’s expected to become a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

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But the pitfalls — legal, ethical, political, known, and unforeseen — are many.

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Over-regulation and delay could thwart the will of the 1.8 million voters who put legalization on the books. That could mean supply shortages, skyrocketing prices, and a failure to kill the thriving black market for cannabis.

Under-regulation and moving too quickly could lead to consumers getting sick and pot shop workers getting hurt. Criminals could gain a foothold in the legal industry, plowing ill-gotten cash into legal shops.

And under-regulation could prompt a crackdown by federal officials, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That’s one of the reasons why it’s best to err initially on the side of being extra strict, said Rick Garza, director of the Liquor and Cannabis Board in Washington state, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012.

Another reason for the stricter-is-better approach: “If you start too loose, you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to get the industry to go back and to create more constricted regulations,” Garza warned.

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Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana in November 2012, but the state bungled the oversight, delaying implementation. The first medical dispensary did not open until 960 days later, in June 2015.

Legislators who rewrote the 2016 voter-passed law that legalized recreational use promise that things will work out better this time.

“We certainly learned our lesson from the horrible rollout of the medical program,” said Representative Mark J. Cusack, House chairman of the Legislature’s marijuana committee.

“Our charge was to avoid those pitfalls and mistakes, and make sure we set up a program that would work from day one and get recreational adult-use marijuana off the ground.”

But the rollout will push up against a Massachusetts tradition of bureaucratic entropy.

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“The government doesn’t have a very good record of starting agencies from scratch,” said Gregory W. Sullivan, the state’s former inspector general and now a top official at the Pioneer Institute think tank.

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The Massachusetts language expected to be signed into law this week includes deadlines that begin almost instantly.

The governor, attorney general, and treasurer must appoint five people each to an unpaid cannabis advisory board no later than Tuesday, Aug. 1.

Then, by Sept. 1, they must choose five people to run another, much more powerful board — the newly created Cannabis Control Commission.

It will oversee the entire recreational marijuana market, with instructions to launch it by next summer while protecting public health and safety.

(Eventually, the commission will also oversee medical marijuana.)

Offering an annual salary of $160,000 for the chair and no more than $120,000 for the four other commissioners, the governor, attorney general, and treasurer will look to woo candidates from the corporate, law enforcement, and public health worlds.

Qualified candidates who are interested in the full five-year term of the job may be few.

Lindalee A. Lawrence, president of Lawrence Associates, a compensation consulting firm, said the commissioners may end up serving just a few years before going back to their original line of work.

Once the commissioners are sworn in, they will quickly have to find an executive director to oversee the day-to-day operations of the cannabis commission.

And then the nascent government agency will go on a hiring spree.

The commission will likely fill key jobs such as a general counsel (to provide legal guidance), a director of enforcement (the top pot cop), a director of licensing (to specify how people can apply to start a cannabis shop or farm or factory), a director of human resources (to hire a staff of perhaps 40 or more), a chief financial officer (to oversee the books), and a director of public affairs (to communicate about the new industry to the state’s 6.8 million people).

Filling such important, high-profile roles could take weeks or months, with the jobs posted publicly and candidates coming in for interviews. It’s unclear whether the CCC will be able to take that much time.

By March, the agency must create a massive compendium of regulations. Those will determine how recreational marijuana shops, farms, manufacturers (think: cannabis-infused soda and massage oil), and testing facilities will be licensed.

Among the CCC’s many mandates, under the language Baker is set to sign into law:

Qualifications for licensure and minimum standards for employment.

Policies to promote and encourage full participation in the new industry of communities particularly hurt by the war on drugs.

Minimum security requirements.

Product health and safety standards.

Packaging and labeling requirements.

Strict limits on marketing, advertising, and promotions.

Energy and environmental standards for marijuana farms and manufacturers. 

The commission must begin accepting license applications by April. And it may begin issuing licenses in June, but insiders don’t expect retail stores to open until mid-summer, at the earliest.

And that’s if the federal government doesn’t crack down.

During the Barack Obama presidency, federal agencies abstained from enforcement of certain parts of US law through a memorandum issued by a top Justice Department official in 2013.

That document, known as the Cole Memo, set enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors, such as preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to cartels, preventing violence in the drug’s distribution, and preventing the distribution to minors.

But the Trump administration appears poised to take a harder line, which could make an already difficult process even tougher for Massachusetts.

The state’s new oversight infrastructure comes as the cannabis industry has already begun to take root in Massachusetts, following the lead of other legalization states, such as Colorado and Alaska. Lawmakers hope the guidelines they put on the books, based on the lessons of states that adopted legal pot earlier, will serve as a national model for those that follow.

While the pitfalls are many, some industry insiders are bullish on the commission doing a good job, and hope and expect it will swiftly implement the measure.

But Garza, the Washington state regulator, said speed should not be the priority.

“No one is going to remember how long it took,” he said. “All they are going to remember is if you didn’t do it correctly.”

Joshua Miller can be reached
at joshua.miller@globe.com.