Stephan Savoia/Associated Press/File 2018
Massachusetts cannabis regulators are facing mounting political pressure to delay the scheduled July debut of certain recreational pot businesses, as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday called for a slower, two-phase rollout of the voter-approved marijuana industry.
But activists and a top state Cannabis Control Commission official are fighting back, saying a variety of businesses must be allowed to participate in the coming cannabis rush. Otherwise, they argued, the agency will fail to fulfill a critical requirement of the state’s marijuana law: that the cannabis industry return wealth to people of color and other communities whose members were arrested for drug crimes at disproportionately high rates before legalization.
“The Legislature was clear and intentional in its mandate that we make this an equitable industry,” said Shaleen Title, one of the agency’s five commissioners, who stressed that she was speaking only for herself. “Those provisions of the law are critical, and fulfilling them will require us to provide multiple opportunities for people from different backgrounds and with different financial means to participate in the industry and build wealth.”
In testimony before the cannabis commission Thursday afternoon, Alexis Tkachuk, Walsh’s director of emerging industries, encouraged the agency to focus on setting up retail pot shops and the farms and edibles manufacturers that will supply them.
Draft plans to license “less clear categories” — such as marijuana delivery services not tied to retail shops, marijuana “cafes” where patrons could consume the drug, and businesses such as spas and movie theaters that want to offer cannabis on the side — can wait until the basics are up and running, she argued.
The comments echoed remarks Baker made to reporters earlier Thursday, when the governor urged the commission to take an “incremental” approach.
“If they try to unwrap the entire package straight out of the gate, the role and responsibility they have as an overseer and as a regulator is going to be compromised,” Baker said. “Trying to do it all at once . . . is a gigantic lift and one that we worry will be one that might not work quite the way people intended.”
But activists say the licenses Baker and Walsh want to delay are among the most affordable businesses to set up. Delaying them, they argued, would let entrenched and wealthy operators dominate the market, while freezing out a more diverse group of would-be cannabis entrepreneurs, creating a two-tier system.
They also said the political push to delay some licenses is part of a familiar pattern, in which diversity and social justice initiatives are treated not as necessities but disposable “nice-to-haves.”
“Everyone supports equity and fairness in theory,” said Shanel Lindsay, who founded the marijuana device company Ardent and also serves on an official board of experts that advises the cannabis commission. “But the moment it encroaches on an opportunity or dollar that could be in their pocket, it’s the first thing out the window.”
Noting that the Legislature strengthened the marijuana law’s equity provisions last summer, and approved language allowing for pot delivery and cafes, Lindsay added, “Any argument that the licenses outlined by the [cannabis commission] weren’t exactly what was contemplated by the law is absurd.”
Lindsay on Thursday convened a meeting of one subcommittee of the state Cannabis Advisory Board. In a symbolic rebuke of Baker and Walsh, its members unanimously reaffirmed the group’s earlier recommendations to create the licenses at issue.
Told of the criticism by activists, a spokeswoman for Walsh said his administration’s primary goal “is to get the law implemented smoothly and to get clarification on areas where there are potential conflicts between the law and regulations.”
A spokesman for Baker said the governor’s administration “recognizes that many business interests are eager to fast-track marijuana enterprises in venues like movie theaters, yoga studios, and delivery services — but believes the safest and most responsible implementation of this new law begins with the establishment of regulated retail sales.”
Baker and Walsh campaigned unsuccessfully against Question 4, the ballot measure that legalized marijuana. But they are supported in their new push to limit the initial pot industry by many of the state’s established medical dispensaries, whose operators are concerned the nascent cannabis commission lacks the resources to oversee so many different types of businesses and also believe the novel license types would undercut the large investments they were required to make under the state’s more onerous medical marijuana law.
Steven Hoffman, the cannabis commission’s chair, said he had “enormous respect” for Baker but would weigh the input of others when voting on whether to adopt the governor’s suggestions. The agency must finalize its rules by March 15.
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