Companies that want to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts are being pressured into paying an unnecessarily high price to follow the letter of the law. The licensing process for dispensaries established under the state Department of Public Health is rightfully rigorous. But the vetting procedures also must be fair. That’s not the case with a provision that requires applicants to submit de facto letters of consent from communities where they want to set up shop — the provision is being used by some local officials to elicit unreasonable payments from businesses applying for dispensary licenses.
Since voters in 2012 approved legislation allowing marijuana to be grown and sold to treat certain medical conditions, just six dispensaries have opened their doors. Another 174 applications are slowly advancing through the regulatory gantlet. The Globe’s Kay Lazar reported last week that one of those applicants, Good Chemistry of Massachusetts, secured an approval letter from Worcester officials only after striking a deal that calls for Good Chemistry to give the city $450,000 over three years, and then dole out $200,000 — plus 2.5 percent of its revenue — in subsequent years. A $10,000 annual contribution to public charities was thrown in for good measure.
In Springfield, officials are negotiating an agreement with a dispensary that pegs the cost of an approval letter to a percentage of the business’s annual sales over the course of 10 years — starting at 3 percent annually and climbing to 7 percent. An additional $50,000 a year would be donated to the Springfield Police Department. There are similarly outrageous examples in other cities and towns.
Letters written by George Washington have sold for less.
Some officials have attempted to justify the payments as advances — money that’s available in the event police overtime details or other municipal services are needed to control some kind of unruly activity at a dispensary. Like a middle-age patient buying marijuana cookies to dull chronic pain, or someone desperate to stave off waves of nausea brought on by chemotherapy? There is no basis for such concerns, which are better described as scare tactics.
The reality is that despite the nature of the wares for sale, the scene at Massachusetts’ medical marijuana shops is typically sedate. Every customer is authorized by a doctor, every transaction is closely monitored. There’s more commotion at a Walgreens drive-thru. As additional shops open, the customer base will be further spread out, lessening the already slim chances of a public safety threat or traffic congestion.
In 2013, then-attorney general Martha Coakley ruled that communities “are not permitted to enact a total ban on marijuana treatment centers,” but they can regulate them through zoning bylaws and even temporary moratoriums. The approval letter requirement was meant to give them additional input into which businesses are awarded licenses. It’s turning out to be a way for local governments to generate cash by putting the squeeze on dispensaries, which aren’t in a position to publicly protest the coercion. Customers, no doubt, will end up absorbing some of the expense.
Voters in November have an opportunity to weigh in indirectly on the issue through the ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Language in the referendum prevents communities from imposing any fee on shops “that is not directly proportional and reasonably related to the costs imposed upon the city or town by the operation of a marijuana establishment.” It means that if the question passes, recreational marijuana shops would have to pay only modest fees, while dispensaries could still be held hostage to approval letter negotiations. State officials would be obliged to address the disparity.
Other states that have medical marijuana dispensaries typically don’t require what the Department of Public Health calls “letters of support or non-opposition.” Massachusetts should move to curb communities’ arm-twisting approval letter deals, or at least drastically limit the size of payments they can solicit from dispensaries.
No matter what it sells, a business that plays by the rules shouldn’t be charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for a letter that’s worth the price of a FedEx delivery.