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A law said pot taxes should help communities harmed by the war on drugs. That hasn’t happened

A vaguely worded law has allowed the state Legislature to overlook sectors that it said would benefit from cannabis taxes.

"It’s not only a broken promise, but a fraud," said Chauncy Spencer, 43, said of the lack of funding for programs in minority communities. Spencer, a Dorchester man formerly incarcerated over marijuana, has faced delays opening a cannabis business in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It was a hard-fought victory for Black and Latino lawmakers — a provision in the state’s marijuana legalization law that said some of the pot tax proceeds would benefit communities targeted most by the war on drugs.

Leaders in minority neighborhoods envisioned the money helping people find housing and jobs, including in the new cannabis industry. Police chiefs, too, celebrated that the law reserved some taxes for officer training, hoping the funds would aid in catching stoned drivers.

But a year and a half into the state’s recreational cannabis rollout, none of the $67 million in excise taxes and fees left over after paying for the cost of regulators has benefited either of those causes, a Globe data analysis has found.


Instead, most of that revenue has gone to the state’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services for existing programs, including treatment for the uninsured, criminal defendants, and impaired-driving offenders. The bureau has not used the marijuana cash to add any staff or programs, a spokeswoman said, but the money has allowed the state to cut in half its general fund allocation to the bureau.

The failure to fulfill the tax pledges has frustrated minority leaders who say racially targeted policing left many in their neighborhoods with criminal records and unemployed — and they have yet to see the booming new industry benefit them. That’s especially painful in a state where voters passed the first legalization law in the country that mandates the pot industry include people harmed most by prohibition.

“It’s not only a broken promise, but a fraud,” said Chauncy Spencer, 43, a Dorchester man formerly incarcerated over marijuana who has faced delays opening a cannabis business in Mattapan. “There was always the suspicion that the money would never be rerouted to the communities, so for [that scenario] to come to fruition is no surprise."


Hoping to open a marijuana retail business, Chauncy Spencer has been renting a former Payless Shoe Source location in Mattapan for about two years. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Recreational marijuana in Massachusetts typically carries a 20 percent tax: a maximum of 3 percent for the pot shop’s local government; 6.25 percent in a state sales tax for public school construction, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and the state general fund; and a 10.75 percent excise tax that, along with cannabis fines and fees, makes up the Marijuana Regulation Fund.

The fund covers marijuana public-awareness campaigns and the budget of regulators at the Cannabis Control Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The remainder, state law says, “shall be expended for” five causes: public health, public safety, municipal police training, illness prevention, and assistance for communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.

But none of those causes besides public health has received any marijuana money — and aren’t slated to this year or next year.

That’s because the law’s wording is vague and doesn’t specify how numerically the money should be divided among the five purposes, allowing the possibility that some don’t receive anything. The law also requires annual action by the Legislature and governor to allocate the money within the massive state budget where pot revenues, though sizable, can be overlooked among other priorities.

Since the revenues started flowing in July 2018, the fund has collected nearly $81 million through early January, state comptroller records show. Each year since, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has proposed using the funds to support the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, which the Legislature has approved.


So far, $13.9 million has funded cannabis regulators and $45.6 million was directed to the bureau —which Baker’s administration sees as fulfilling the law’s requirements.

But to minority community advocates, the state is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

"Certainly some of that money from this fund does need to get intentionally slotted into the restorative economic development and war on drugs remediation efforts that the law requires,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s cannabis policy committee.

Chang-Díaz was among the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus members who in 2017 fought for the tax provision as lawmakers wrote the provisions of the law after voters passed a referendum calling for it. They aimed to redress the racially disparate harms of prohibition. For example, one study showed Black people in Massachusetts were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 than whites, despite similar consumption rates.

At the time, Chang-Díaz said, the caucus members understood that the law as written would likely not result in money flowing to their communities. They figured they would need to tweak the law’s wording to include a numeric carve-out, she said, but that wasn’t politically feasible then amid uncertainty about the money.

“I knew we would have to come back and fight to get specific money into that bucket,” Chang-Díaz said, “but it was a win to get the strong foothold.”


Baker’s administration said it supports people of color and police in many ways outside of marijuana revenues and touted a 175 percent increase in proposed spending to address substance abuse since taking office. Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for Baker, noted the administration shares control over the cannabis money with the Legislature.

The administration said it funds causes important to Black and Latino communities: job training, jail diversion, reentry services for the formerly incarcerated, youth summer jobs, and entrepreneur grants. Federal money supports police training on drugged-driving.

It’s too early to predict whether the administration would support distributing the marijuana revenues to more purposes in the future, MacCormack said.

That the marijuana taxes haven’t funded anything new runs counter to people’s expectations, cannabis advocates said.

“Common sense would be that it would fund new things and new initiatives,” said Shaleen Title, a Cannabis Control commissioner. “You want to use those funds in a way that is related [to legalization] and fair.”

To be sure, Massachusetts hasn’t collected as much pot money as expected yet because of its slow cannabis industry rollout.

Other states have spent pot taxes creatively. Colorado has built affordable housing and increased school health staff. California has paid for thousands of new child-care vouchers for low-income families, youth programs in minority areas, and job training for formerly incarcerated people.

Police leaders argued some of the cannabis money also should ensure that legalization unfolds safely, through beefing up impaired-driving enforcement and investigations of dealers who sell to kids and hawk dangerous vapes.


“I’m hoping that each individual thing gets their share of funding that they need because they’re all important,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael.

Public safety advocates want the money to double the state’s number of police trained as “drug-recognition experts.” That training can be expensive as departments must pay overtime to cover an absent officer’s shifts, Carmichael said, but it’s crucial to ensure officers can identify and arrest dangerous drivers.

Public safety officials want to use marijuana taxes to double Massachusetts' number of "drug-recognition expert" officers. Chelsea Police Officer Paul Marchese, shown in July, is one of about 150 specially trained drug-recognition experts in the state. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Meanwhile, Black and Latino leaders say the state owes their communities for disparate treatment that sparked higher drug arrest rates and harsher punishments. In Boston, a 2015 study found, police concentrated stops in minority neighborhoods and were 12 percent more likely to search Black people.

“It would only be right for the state to try to begin to level the playing field" for those “left out of opportunities in part because of the way the criminal legal system has operated in their communities.” said Rahsaan Hall, racial justice director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Last year, Chang-Díaz filed a measure, first suggested by the cannabis commission, to create a no-interest loan fund — using donations and marijuana taxes — for pot entrepreneurs from areas most affected by criminalization. It failed. She plans to re-file.

One key challenge, she said, is that minority communities still lack the clout of other constituencies.

“We need people to show up and to organize and to create accountability for this promise that exists in the law,” Chang-Díaz said.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz was among the Legislature's Black and Latino Caucus members who fought for their communities to be included in the law's list of marijuana tax beneficiaries. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The money also should fund organizations helping people find jobs, housing, education, mentorship, and other services, said Andrea James, a Roxbury activist who founded Families for Justice as Healing.

For James, the state’s failed promise on marijuana taxes was just another example of her community being neglected.

“It’s outrageous,” James said. “It’s also business as usual.”

Naomi Martin can be reached at