Massachusetts is likely to experience a surge of stoned drivers and an increase in youth marijuana use and risk “significant” black-market pot sales if cannabis regulators carry out their plan to license a wide variety of unique marijuana sellers, such as movie theaters and delivery services, the state’s top public safety official warned Monday.
In a letter to the independent Cannabis Control Commission, Secretary of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett also cautioned that the agency’s draft regulations would allow “an applicant with a criminal history of cocaine or heroin trafficking” to work as a pot shop clerk, delivery driver, or cannabis farm employee.
The comments were the third scolding dished out to the cannabis commission by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration in a week — a sign of a growing tussle over the ambitions for and sweep of the recreational pot market that’s set to debut in July.
Baker and other political leaders, many of whom opposed the ballot question to legalize marijuana, now say the commission must slow down and focus on getting the basics right.
On the other side are marijuana activists and would-be entrepreneurs, who see a pernicious effort to subvert the will of the 1.8 million Massachusetts voters who two years ago supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults.
“Secretary Bennett’s letter is a retread of all the discredited arguments made by Governor Baker, the state district attorneys, and all other prohibitionists during the 2016 campaign,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the ballot initiative. “Voters weighed these arguments and rejected them.”
The cannabis panel has proposed licensing pot cafés where patrons could consume (though not smoke) the drug, pot delivery services that aren’t tied to brick-and-mortar dispensaries, and businesses such as spas and movie theaters that want to offer pot on the side.
But administration officials say the commission should devote its resources to getting pot farms, shops, manufacturers, and testing facilities off the ground before considering cannabis cafés and the like.
If the panel wants to “take up a lot of these second- and third-tier issues at some point after the program is up and running, I think that’s fine,” Baker told reporters Monday. “But I think the experience coming out of both Colorado and Oregon has been that this is a very tough industry to regulate straight out of the gate, and people should crawl before they walk, and walk before they run.”
Bennett added that the sheer number of marijuana businesses envisioned by the commission would make it difficult for police and regulators to ensure legal pot isn’t diverted to the black market.
The state’s medical dispensaries support an incremental approach, in part because it would mean less competition in the early days of recreational pot sales. Most medical dispensaries have said they plan to seek recreational licenses and begin selling marijuana to adults, even if they are not registered patients.
Marijuana advocates, however, have said that issuing a variety of licenses will multiply the industry’s economic benefits — and tax revenues — while giving consumers more options.
They also argue that the licenses at issue generally require less money upfront to open than dispensaries or growing operations. That in turn could help fulfill the marijuana law’s mandate that entrepreneurs from municipalities whose members were arrested for drug crimes at disproportionately high rates before legalization be given a chance to enter the industry.
But most of all, activists complained, Baker’s push is an attempt to re-fight a battle he lost at the ballot box, and underestimates the commission’s ability to multitask.
“It’s scare tactics,” said Shanel Lindsay, an attorney and marijuana business owner who serves on an advisory board to the cannabis commission. “To cite absolutely manageable public health concerns in an attempt to completely gut the most important statutory mandates shows a lack of respect for the people’s will.”
Baker, a Republican, brushed aside the suggestion that he is trying to sabotage implementation of the marijuana law, saying his administration is merely providing the detailed feedback sought by the cannabis commission. The agency released its draft rules in December and must finalize them by March 15.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat, offered support to Baker, saying the state at first should stick to “the basics” of tracking cannabis plants from seed to sale. However, DeLeo said he would not favor legislation to constrain the commission, saying it should be given a chance to adjust its rules.
In his letter, Bennett elaborated on the reasons his agency supports a go-slow approach.
For one thing, he said, draft rules would let people younger than 21 be in “mixed-use” businesses such as theaters, in apparent violation of the law, which forbids them from entering any licensed marijuana-related business. And pot cafés would “inevitably result in an increase” in the number of stoned drivers, he wrote.
Activists say such venues are critical for those who can’t use pot at home because of leases or public housing rules. State law bans public consumption.
The cannabis commission did not respond to a request for comment.