Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday signed into law a package of significant reforms to the state’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry, capping a yearslong campaign by advocates, entrepreneurs, and regulators to rewrite the rules of cannabis commerce in Massachusetts.
While officials said key aspects of the bill could take a year or longer to implement, the measure will eventually crack down on unjustified municipal fees charged to marijuana operations, deposit a chunk of recreational pot tax revenues into a loan fund for disenfranchised entrepreneurs, and clear the way for a cannabis café pilot program.
Other provisions would make it slightly easier for former defendants to clear away old marijuana-related criminal charges, while also requiring cities and towns to consider equity when awarding local licenses to pot businesses, as the Cannabis Control Commission must when awarding state licenses.
Baker, in a signing statement, said he supported those changes, but explained that he vetoed another section of the bill calling for a study on pediatric medical marijuana patients consuming the drug at school.
“I support many of the provisions this bill adopts to improve regulation of the cannabis industry, and I support the bill’s efforts to expand opportunities for social equity businesses,” Baker wrote. “I have serious concerns, however, about [the study]. The language of the section is highly prescriptive — making it clear that the agencies charged with producing the study must identify ways to make medical marijuana widely available within schools, rather than considering whether such an allowance is advisable.”
The governor went on to note that the state’s marijuana statutes explicitly ban marijuana use on school grounds, and said the study “clearly works against” those “important and well-established protections.”
Officials at the cannabis commission told the Globe there are currently only 45 pediatric medical marijuana patients in Massachusetts, down from 93 in 2020. Under state law, parents or guardians seeking medical marijuana for a minor must obtain recommendations from two doctors, including a pediatrician. Doctors who treat such patients said nearly all have serious ailments such as seizure disorders, and that they often take oral preparations of non-impairing cannabidiol, or CBD.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed certified pediatric patients to access cannabis medicine while at school, but a compromise committee of state representatives and senators removed that language and instead directed cannabis and education officials to study the question.
After Baker’s veto, even the study appears dead in the water, though there is a remote possibility that the Legislature — which recently ended its formal session and typically conducts little business in August — could override the governor.
Overall, supporters of the measure said, the changes approved Thursday by Baker will make the booming marijuana business in Massachusetts fairer, recognizing decades of racially disproportionate arrests for marijuana-related activity that is now legal.
Officials at the cannabis commission — which is charged by law with creating an equitable industry — had long advocated for the loan fund in particular, noting that marijuana entrepreneurs cannot easily obtain financing to start their businesses thanks to the federal ban on the drug.
“You can’t just walk into a bank and say, ‘Can I have a loan for my small cannabis business?’ ” Commissioner Nurys Camargo told reporters Thursday. “Everyone’s going to be knocking down the door to apply for these.”
Proponents also said the advent of cannabis cafés — a concept included in the original legalization law but not implemented because of a language error — would finally give renters, public housing tenants, and tourists a legal place to use a legal substance. (While neighboring New York allows marijuana consumption anywhere tobacco is allowed, consumers in Massachusetts face a $100 fine for toking in public.)
The primary opponents of the legislation were local officials who objected to the cannabis commission gaining authority over their contracts with local marijuana operators. The industry, for its part, had long complained the deals call for unfairly steep “impact” fees above and beyond the actual negative effects dispensaries and other cannabis facilities impose on nearby communities.
“We are thrilled beyond belief,” said David O’Brien, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association. “Municipalities are now going to have to take their grubby hands out of our pockets and treat cannabis like the legal business it is.”
There will not be an immediate crackdown, however. First, the cannabis commission must draft standards and a process for evaluating the local contracts, which it will do each time a marijuana company applies for its annual license renewal.
Agency officials also said Thursday they intend to revisit the rules around cannabis cafes, which were extensively negotiated by previous commissioners who have since left their posts, suggesting the facilities won’t open any time soon. Commissioners will additionally have to coordinate with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development on the disbursement of the loan fund.
“The lawmakers have done their job,” Camargo said, “and now we need to do ours.”