Under sharp criticism from marijuana advocates, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey defended her decision to allow some municipalities to delay marijuana businesses until next summer without holding a communitywide vote, insisting it won’t lead to widespread prohibitions by communities across the state.
Healey, who opposed the 2016 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana, ruled Friday that Mansfield could extend a temporary moratorium on permitting marijuana operations through June 2019. That appeared to contradict a previous ruling in which her office said any local freezes beyond Dec. 31 of this year were longer than is reasonably necessary and could be viewed as unconstitutional.
In May, Town Meeting in Mansfield approved two new zoning districts for marijuana businesses — one for companies that grow pot, one for those that sell it — and an extension of a moratorium on licensing such businesses until June 2019. Healey said she authorized the extension to give Mansfield time to review new regulations and decide whether any further local changes were necessary, which would have to be approved by its next Town Meeting in spring, 2019.
“I remain as committed as ever to helping implement the marijuana legalization law as quickly and safely as possible,” Healey said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s important that people not see this as a statewide moratorium.”
Acceding to requests from advocates and lawyers for pot applicants, Healey released a detailed legal justification of the Mansfield moratorium, and her aides said they would also meet with marijuana proponents to clarify the ruling, which prompted an intense backlash.
“We’re grateful for the further clarity, but we’re still concerned about the precedent set by extending any moratoriums into 2019,” said Jim Borghesani, the spokesman for the 2016 campaign.
Under state law, communities that haven’t outright banned marijuana establishments cannot impose “unreasonably impracticable” restrictions. Healey is charged with reviewing whether temporary moratoriums passed by towns are for genuine reasons, or are unreasonably long delays that amount to de facto bans.
Healey said she must evaluate a town’s proposed moratorium on a case-by-case basis and cannot reject them out of hand. In Mansfield, the adoption of zoning for pot companies, she said, shows the town is not trying to delay the arrival of legal marijuana.
“I really don’t think this is a big deal,” Healey said. “There are certain circumstances that have necessitated a little bit more time for certain towns.”
Under state law, municipalities where a majority of residents supported the 2016 ballot measure must return to voters if they want to ban marijuana businesses. By a slight margin, Mansfield voted in favor of legalization. But the moratorium, needed only the approval of Mansfield’s town meeting.
Municipalities that opposed the 2016 initiative may implement bans with a vote of their legislative bodies, such as city councils or town meetings. More than 200 of the state’s 351 municipalities currently have bans or temporary moratoriums in place.
Earlier Wednesday, marijuana advocates rallied outside the State House to protest Healey’s decision, calling on the attorney general to reject any requests by towns to freeze pot licensing into 2019. So far, the attorney general’s office has approved only one other such moratorium, a freeze in Heath through Jan. 31. Five other small communities have moratoriums that extend into 2019 that are being reviewed by Healey.
Meanwhile, a state cannabis commission member objected to Healey’s initial assertion that “ongoing regulatory activity” by state cannabis regulators justified the Mansfield moratorium.
Cannabis commissioner Britte McBride noted the agency’s regulations were finalized in March.
“Communities have the tools right now to move forward in making these decisions and figuring out how cannabis fits into the fabric of their communities,” McBride said.
The commissioner also cautioned both sides in the debate: Municipalities should not use moratoriums as “back-door bans”; meanwhile, too much criticism from advocates, she feared, might convince officials in other communities that an outright ban is a simpler, less politically troublesome path.
“If they really are being thoughtful about zoning, I don’t want people to be scared off by this,” McBride said. “I view this as a single decision, and I think the response to it should be proportional.”