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Feds focus on the Wild West of local pot agreements

US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling
US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. LellingJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Those host community agreements required of every pot shop that wants to open in Massachusetts have been the Wild West of marijuana regulation — cities and towns demanding what they can, when they can.

Well now it seems those agreements have attracted the attention of federal prosecutors — and that’s a very good thing indeed.

The system has long cried out for a legislative fix, but even when confronted with obvious abuses, state lawmakers have moved at a glacial pace to rewrite the law. Perhaps the scrutiny of such agreements by a federal grand jury will succeed in focusing their minds on a remedy.


Globe reporters this week succeeded in confirming that at least six communities —Great Barrington, Eastham, Leicester, Newton, Northampton, and Uxbridge — have received subpoenas from the US attorney’s office in Boston asking them to produce documents relating to their host community agreements, including earlier drafts of those agreements and any relevant email exchanges.

A spokeswoman for US Attorney Andrew Lelling wouldn’t say how many cities and towns have received those subpoenas, but it’s a good guess the probe isn’t limited to that handful of communities.

It was, after all, just last September when Lelling announced the indictment of Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia II on charges of accepting more than a half-million dollars in bribes in return for his approval of host community agreements in that city. And surely it is no coincidence that the grand jury expected to be receiving that flood of paper requested in the subpoenas is being led by the chief of Lelling’s public corruption unit.

The agreements themselves have long been a contentious issue. Sure, the law says that payments from marijuana facilities should be limited to no more than 3 percent of a company’s revenue for a maximum of five years and other payments should be “reasonably related” to costs likely to be incurred by the town — such as police details. But some communities took that not as a ceiling but a floor. Donations to nonprofits have been a frequent add-on. Sometimes to programs aimed at educating consumers about the effects of marijuana, but not necessarily.


Might it be to the favorite charity of a local selectman? And wouldn’t that be the same kind of corruption charge raised in the Boston Calling case that brought down two City Hall officials?

“I receive complaints almost every day that the process is out of control,” Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title told our reporters. Her most recent complaint came from a firm that was informed by one town official that only those agreeing to a $15,000 “donation” would make the cut for a host community agreement.

In Boston, which has approved 10 host community agreements, most are the usual boilerplate about security and signage. But the one for East Boston that Bloom approved last February includes in its add-on, “the company agrees to participate in public safety and beautification initiatives in and around Maverick Square,” where it will be located. No price tag was included.

Beacon Hill lawmakers have known there was a problem for more than a year. The Cannabis Control Commission insisted it had the authority only to check that there was an agreement, not to look under the hood of each to determine whether it violated the law. Some on their face actually did.


Last July the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy held a hearing on several bills aimed at giving the Commission the explicit authority to examine the agreement and, even more important, one requiring that “no obligation beyond the payment of 3 percent of gross sales” would be enforceable. The latter goes too far in that it could negate needed security provisions. But the real problem right now is legislative inertia. No bill has moved beyond the hearing stage.

Lelling’s investigation may at the very least have a chilling effect on local officials who view pot entrepreneurs as ripe for the picking. But it should also motivate lawmakers to help save those officials from their own worst instincts.