Three years after recreational marijuana sales kicked off in Massachusetts, the agency that regulates the industry is urging legislators to update the state’s stagnant cannabis laws, saying changes are urgently needed so it can carry out its mission.
The Cannabis Control Commission recently voted unanimously to launch its first-ever coordinated lobbying blitz on Beacon Hill, in support of proposed bills that would award low-interest loans or grants to disenfranchised entrepreneurs trying to open licensed marijuana businesses.
The agency’s five commissioners, four of whom were appointed within the past year, said the state is falling short of its legal — and moral — obligation to ensure equity within the legal pot business after decades of racially disproportionate drug arrests.
“Our equity applicants are being left behind,” Commissioner Ava Concepcion said at a public meeting this month. “It’s time for the Legislature to address the reality. ... Otherwise, the promises of equity and inclusion ingrained in our state’s cannabis laws will never be realized.”
As of earlier this month, just 16 of the 194 companies that had successfully opened a marijuana facility were owned by participants in the commission’s equity and economic empowerment programs, which confer licensing priority at the state level and provide the fledgling companies with technical assistance.
Commissioners at the recent public meeting identified a lack of funding and the often prolonged and expensive local licensing process as the major obstacles facing those applicants. The agency previously voted to endorse reforms that would give it oversight of local fees called for in the required “host community agreement” contracts between cannabis companies and municipalities.
Although it is common for officials from various state agencies to meet with legislators about budget needs and proposed policy changes that concern their operations, the commission until now largely had abstained from such conversations.
In part, that was because of objections raised by former commissioner Jen Flanagan, who was previously a state representative and said publicly that it was inappropriate for the independent commission to give explicit direction to lawmakers. Without a consensus, lobbying efforts by staff were somewhat sidelined, and commissioners met with legislators only in their individual capacity — sometimes delivering conflicting messages.
That lack of consistent advocacy is one likely factor behind the Legislature’s failure to approve any significant cannabis-related reforms since 2017 when it rewrote the marijuana legalization ballot initiative approved by voters the previous year. Commission Chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters the state is “falling behind.”
“I and other of the former commissioners have been beating our heads against the brick wall for a number of years,” Hoffman said, referring to legislative inaction.
Now, under a new system approved in August, commissioners and agency staffers will work together to push specific legislative priorities approved by commission votes.
“This represents a significant step for us here at the commission,” said Concepcion, a former legislative staffer who also directed intergovernmental affairs for Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. She added that while the commission previously failed to “communicate effectively as a singular agency,” the new approach “provides clarity to the Legislature, to the executive branch, and the public on the commission’s official position.”
Hoffman already has indicated he will seek further policy votes on two issues at the commission’s next meeting in January: Reaffirming the commission’s endorsement of reforms to the local host community agreement system and seeking legislative permission to move forward with a shelved pilot program for social consumption lounges, or cannabis cafes.
Hoffman also has said the lack of requirement for municipalities to consider equity in their approval processes was a major flaw in the 2017 marijuana law passed by the Legislature in the wake of the 2016 legalization ballot initiative, preventing many disenfranchised applicants from ever making it to the state licensing system.
While several different bills have been proposed that would direct money to equity applicants, advocates and commissioners said they hoped the Legislature would ultimately approve a loan or grant fund that is filled both by state recreational tax revenue and private donations from larger cannabis firms.
In the meantime, commissioners acknowledged, the state’s once-pioneering equity mandate now has been eclipsed by more robust and better-funded equity measures in other states such as Connecticut and New York that recently legalized marijuana.
“We always talk about being first in the nation,” Concepcion said, “but it’s lip service if we’re not putting any kind of teeth behind it.”