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Should Massachusetts levy civil fines on those who sell marijuana without a license?


Michael Moore

State senator, Millbury Democrat

Senator Michael Moore

Since voters approved the 2016 ballot question to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults in the Commonwealth, licensed establishments have been opening across the state. Despite the expansion of the legal marijuana industry, it was projected in 2019 that 75 percent of marijuana sales in Massachusetts that year would be from illicit vendors.

The presence of an underground marijuana marketplace is not unique to the Commonwealth, but that does not diminish the need to address the problem. Together with state Representative Hannah Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican, I filed legislation that would build on the success of the state’s Illegal Tobacco Task Force by allowing agencies to pool knowledge, resources, and best practices to address the challenges of the illicit market. Our legislation also provides for the Commonwealth to recoup tax revenue lost to the illicit market by levying civil fines on those found to be illegally selling marijuana, on top of the existing criminal penalties.

Illicit sellers would be subject to a “Forgone Tax Revenue Assessment” which would help fund three important objectives: municipal and state police training on enforcing marijuana laws; youth substance abuse prevention programming and early intervention; and the Cannabis Control Commission’s social equity fund, which offer services in the communities most impacted by punitive drug policies. Our legislation offers an innovative solution that discourages the illicit marketplace while better enforcing the rules against unregulated marijuana operations.


The illicit market continues to provide youth access to marijuana and could increasingly target them as the legal marketplace for adults expands. That puts the health and safety of young people at increased risk. Marijuana sold illicitly is not subject to the stringent testing and safety standards required of the legal establishments, and thus lacks the needed public health and safety protections. Our goal as a Commonwealth should be to reduce underage consumption and to do so requires eliminating access through illicit operators.


We must adopt policies and regulations that will help us combat the illicit marketplace, while also respecting the will of the voters who sought to create a regulated and taxed distribution system in the form of this newly legal marketplace.


Michelle Herman

Needham resident; cannabis patient advocate; media director and registered lobbyist for MassSense - Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council.

Michelle Herman

The proposed task force is really law enforcement overreach. We already have police departments, and since adult marijuana use is now legal, they should have extra time to enforce rules against unlicensed sales. Is there really a need for another police organization?

Marijuana arrests account for nearly half of the nation’s drug arrests.And significant racial bias exists. Rather than keeping the industry underground why are we not having more programs to bring these operators into the legal taxable industry? This legislation pushes us backwards.

Those who receive civil fines under this bill could also be exposed to potential federal prosecution. And the civil fines would cause financial ruin for many sellers who might have been preparing to transition to a legitimate business.

The bill provides that in calculating the fines, the state would rely on the cash value of sales in the legitimate market. That simply won’t be accurate. A legal pound of recreational marijuana costs $4,000 to $4,500. On the street, a pound sells for $1,600 to $1,800. Because a legitimate pound is more than twice the price of the street value, the fines would equal twice the actual value.


Moreover, with no provision of amnesty or forgiveness, veteran operators would be discouraged from entering the legal industry. Why would anyone want to come into the market if it meant having a target put on them and possibly losing millions of dollars in forfeited revenue and future earnings.

The drug war did not stop dangerous drugs from entering our neighborhoods. The continued stigma attached to caregivers trying to make cannabis available to ease some of the irreparable damage done by the opioid crisis needs to stop. Cannabis was never an entrance drug, but it is being continually proven to help get patients off opiate medications.

Massachusetts was leading the pack a few years ago with our innovative licenses and pathways to the industry. Sadly, as more legislative efforts to kill the industry emerge, I fear we will continue to fall behind. I wish we would look to our friends out west to fix any mistakes previously made and create a strong cannabis industry in the commonwealth.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact

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