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MARIJUANA MOMENT

Massachusetts lawmakers will debate bill to provide marijuana businesses with coronavirus relief funds

Robert Layman

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

Massachusetts lawmakers will hold a virtual hearing Tuesday to discuss a proposal to establish a state-level coronavirus relief program that would extend benefits to the marijuana industry and other businesses that are currently excluded from receiving federal COVID-19 funds.

The Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses won’t meet in person due to the pandemic, but they will hold a Zoom hearing to debate the bill, which was filed by Chairwoman Diana DiZoglio last month. The emergency legislation calls for the creation of “a Massachusetts Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for businesses ineligible for the comparable federal PPP.”

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A preamble to the bill states that “it is hereby declared to be an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public safety, health and convenience.” Fifteen lawmakers have signed on to cosponsor the proposal so far.

This proposal could prove especially beneficial to Massachusetts’ cannabis market during the health crisis, as Governor Charlie Baker has deemed only medical cannabis dispensaries “essential” and able to operate while temporarily shuttering recreational shops.

A public agency would be tasked with developing regulations for the service within 30 days of the bill’s enactment. Cannabis businesses aren’t explicitly mentioned in the text of the legislation, but they are a standout example of an industry that is specifically excluded from federal relief and would qualify for benefits through the proposed Massachusetts program.

People can submit testimony for the Tuesday hearing online.

The federal Small Business Administration has confirmed that neither marijuana companies — nor those that indirectly work with the industry such as accounting or legal firms — qualify for federal coronavirus-related relief as long as cannabis remains prohibited. That’s prompted a slew of advocates, lawmakers and stakeholders to press for reforming eligibility requirements as part of future stimulus packages.

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While a bill was introduced to that end in Congress — and members of both the House and Senate have sent letters urging leadership to include such language in COVID-19 legislation — it remains to be seen whether the proposed policy change will be enacted. Recognizing that challenge, a coalition of industry associations sent a letter to state officials last month, imploring them to set up independent relief programs like the one on the table in Massachusetts.

Shaleen Title, who serves as a member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, said the relief for recreational cannabis businesses is “especially important” because the state is the only one in the country that has shuttered adult-use retailers — even while liquor stores remain open. That situation, she said, “has put those businesses in a position where they face an uncertain future without the disaster relief options that others can draw on for help.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic, the exclusion of federal emergency relief and the state’s order closing those businesses all threaten the commitments to racial and economic equity that are explicitly integral to the laws that govern our state’s cannabis industry,” Title added. “This type of state financial support would help Massachusetts to preserve the gains it has made for small businesses.”

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Besides passing legislation to extend benefits at the federal level, or providing relief through a state-level system, there is another option identified by a group of cannabis associations and credit unions last week. The coalition is asking Congress to issue pandemic relief block grants to states so they can decide on their own how to allocate the funds.

Read the story on Marijuana Moment.