The jury may still be out on Jasiel Correia, the disgraced former mayor of Fall River, whose trial on marijuana-related corruption charges wrapped up this week. But the verdict on the state’s new marijuana law is clear. The portions of the law that allow cities and towns to demand payouts from would-be marijuana businesses creates an open invitation for abuse, criminal or otherwise, and the Legislature needs to rein them in.
According to federal prosecutors, Correia, the one-time wunderkind of Fall River politics who was first elected at age 23, leapt on the arrival of legal marijuana in 2016 as an opportunity to line his pockets and splurge on helicopters, luxury hotel stays, and vacations. He allegedly collected a total of $600,000 in bribes from would-be marijuana businessmen, some of which he collected personally in his city-issued SUV, in exchange for “non-opposition” letters.
Non-opposition letters are a key part of the state’s labyrinthine process for anyone seeking to open a marijuana business. Local leaders are also empowered to require “host community agreements” that oblige marijuana businesses to make payments, give charitable donations, or even donate their employees’ time. These requirements all have the effect of raising the cost of doing business and squeezing out entrepreneurs who lack sufficient resources — which is especially odd considering that equity was one of the state goals in marijuana legalization.
There’s a big moral difference, of course, between Correia’s alleged self-serving graft and officials trying to help their communities. But to the nascent marijuana industry, the demands Correia allegedly made from the seat of an SUV don’t look so different from what towns ask of them in broad daylight. “Legalized extortion is the norm,” said David O’Brien, the CEO of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, in a statement Tuesday accompanying the release of a report it sponsored on the local agreements. State law nominally imposes some limits on what communities can demand, but the survey of 460 host community agreements found that they routinely exceeded those limits and made questionable financial demands.
One town demanded a marijuana business give $5,000 to the local American Legion. Another required a retailer to provide 50 hours of employee time for veterans assistance and other needs. Another required a seller to offer senior discounts (which, when it comes to cannabis, is actually illegal). Another required businesses to pitch in to pay for a shuttle-bus study.
No other legal business is subject to such an array of municipal shakedowns. Yes, helping veterans and running buses are worthy causes, but marijuana businesses should be allowed to support them the same way other small businesses do — through their taxes. It’s not fair to put a single business, even one that some might consider disreputable, on the hook for solving broader public problems.
The problem has been that the Cannabis Control Commission lacks explicit authority to reject community agreements. (Legislators initially insisted that the commission could, in fact, reject agreements, but a judicial ruling sided with the commission’s more limited interpretation of its powers.) Just before the coronavirus outbreak, the House of Representatives passed legislation cracking down on the agreements, and the change is overdue. The association also called for a more transparent accounting of any payments made by marijuana companies.
Ultimately, Massachusetts can’t have it both ways. The state embraced marijuana legalization as a way to redress past wrongs and create economic opportunity for marginalized populations — then created a licensing system that only the deep-pocketed and well-connected can navigate. Marijuana is a legal, $400 million-a-year business now. The state can and should impose reasonable regulations on how cannabis is grown and sold. But opening a marijuana business should look a lot more like opening any other kind of retailer of legal products and a lot less like an insider game.
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