More than a year after Massachusetts voters legalized marijuana, a new political war is breaking out over the drug.
Once again, pro-cannabis advocates are pitted against skeptics of legalization, but this time the question is: Who will profit first when recreational pot sales begin in July?
The trigger for the fight was last week’s launch of a public pressure campaign aimed at the Cannabis Control Commission by Governor Charlie Baker, who opposed legalization and now says the agency must slow down and limit the scope of the industry. He argues a more modest launch will protect public safety and be easier to manage.
Activists are mustering an organized resistance, saying voters have spoken and that delaying licensing of certain types of businesses, as Baker suggests, would enrich entrenched interests at the expense of smaller players and marginalized groups.
At a public hearing in Roxbury Tuesday evening, an animated crowd of nearly 200 residents, advocates, and entrepreneurs urged cannabis commission officials to disregard Baker and stick to their original plan to license a wide variety of marijuana businesses at the outset.
Failing to do so, they said, would undermine the marijuana law’s explicit mandate that communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs — especially minorities — participate in the newly legal cannabis industry.
“The Cannabis Control Commission has the power to deliver restorative justice, and to economically empower communities who have long suffered the most at the hands of cannabis prohibition,” TaShonda Vincent-Lee, an activist and co-founder of a marijuana industry networking company, said at the hearing. “I would like to encourage the commission in its steadfast pursuit of an industry that’s safe and accessible for all, not just a few.”
In a series of letters released publicly in drip-drip fashion over the past week, various departments of Baker’s administration have sternly urged cannabis regulators to delay their plans to permit social consumption venues, or marijuana cafés, delivery services that do not have a physical storefront, and businesses such as spas and movie theaters that may want to offer cannabis on the side.
Administration officials worry the newly formed commission will be overwhelmed with applicants and that having pot available at too many different venues will increase the risk of stoned driving, youth pot use, and smuggling legally produced marijuana to the illicit market.
In the latest letter, sent Wednesday from the state Department of Public Health, the administration warned of “unpredictable complications” that could arise from the controversial pot licenses.
Baker’s office suggested business interests are pushing the commission to “fast-track” licenses before the agency is ready; the governor has said he supports drawing up rules for some of those operations later.
But activists see such efforts as little more than fear-mongering and obstructionism to undermine the 2016 vote. Joined by groups such as the ACLU, they want the commission to move in the opposite direction, by increasing the variety of license types and adopting stronger policies — including explicit consideration of race in licensing — to increase the diversity and fairness of the forthcoming pot business.
And, increasingly, the fight has the feel of a coordinated political campaign.
In the past week, the state’s district attorneys and the association representing municipalities have weighed in with the commission on Baker’s side. At the same time, medical dispensaries entering the recreational market advocated for a go-slow approach that would protect them against competitors, while public health advocates also tried to drum up public support.
The other side includes the Massachusetts branch of the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the successful 2016 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana. The group plans a rally outside the State House Thursday morning to step up the pressure on Baker, accusing the governor of launching a “coordinated intimidation campaign” against the cannabis panel’s independence and misusing statistics about driving under the influence of pot.
And one of Baker’s potential Democratic opponents in the 2018 election, Jay Gonzalez, is trying to make the governor’s position a campaign issue, saying that Baker is “trying to undermine the law passed by the voters.”
Activists at the hearing argued that because using marijuana in public is banned, not allowing pot bars and other venues would leave many renters and tourists without a place to legally consume the drug.
“If only [dispensaries] can provide the space or the cannabis product, we shut out small businesses while boosting the illicit market,” said Beth Waterfall, an activist and marijuana business owner. “Variety and a robust supply chain will also boost our tourism industry.”
And because delivery services and social consumption venues are cheaper to start than large pot farms or retail stores, activists said delaying them would freeze out small entrepreneurs and minorities.
“Delivery really is key to equity and small business — it is the lowest barrier to entry,” said Amber Senter, who owns a dispensary in Oakland, Calif., and flew to Massachusetts for the hearing. “It’s how I started my own business in cannabis.”
If anything, the activists want the cannabis commission to go even further and allow for pot consumption at events such as weddings and parties, as well as at bring-your-own-cannabis venues where home-growers could swap and consume marijuana. They argued that people are already consuming pot at such places, and those operating such venues and events now should have a chance to join the new, legitimate industry.
“I’ve been to three or four events around the corner from here,” said Kamani Jefferson, president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, at the hearing Tuesday night. “We should be creating pathways for experienced local residents instead of targeting them.”