Mass. cannabis commission shouldn’t let towns shake down pot retailers
It’s just pot — not a pot of gold.
The state’s new marijuana law limits how much lucre municipalities can extract from retailers, and for good reason: If cities and towns make it too pricey to operate retail businesses, fewer will open. And those retailers that can afford to pay are less likely to be the proverbial mom-and-pop weed vendors the state desires, and more likely to be corporate operators.
Unfortunately, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission is shirking its responsibility by failing to enforce clear legal limits on those community host agreements. The five-member commission says it doesn’t have the explicit authority to stop such agreements and instead has put the onus on the Legislature to clarify the law.
Kicking the issue back to Beacon Hill isn’t the answer. The legislators who oversaw the revisions of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law — State Senator Patricia Jehlen and state Representative Mark Cusack — insist the commission already has all the authority it needs to do its job and lay down the law on those agreements.
The controversy over host community agreements, which are an essential part of the licensing process for the state’s first recreational marijuana establishments, has been brewing for months. While the law itself is rather specific, some communities have taken it as a mere starting point for negotiations with would-be operators, demanding “contributions” to charities, payments for educational programs and maybe even a bike rack.
And those cannabis firms, knowing that they are bidding on a new and exceedingly lucrative business, have been all too willing to go along — signing agreements with host communities well in excess of any legal requirements.
The practice — if allowed to continue — is an invitation to corruption.
But last week the commission voted 4-1 not to review the contents of each host community agreement now before them — there are currently only nine — but rather just certify that the agreements existed.
At the heart of the controversy is the advantage that such potential municipal shakedowns give large-scale operators over smaller entrepreneurs and those trying to enter the field under the law’s social equity component. Frankly, the lack of banking and loan services is a far greater deterrent to those operators than municipal demands, but could it be one factor? Sure.
As written, state law allows host communities, in addition to levying a local excise tax of up to 3 percent, to assess a community impact fee that “shall not amount to more than 3 percent of the gross sales of the marijuana establishment” . . . “or be effective for longer than 5 years.” No ambiguity there. Nor with the provision that the fee “be reasonably related to the costs imposed upon the municipality.” In other words, this isn’t like the casino host community agreements, where the sky is the limit.
In drafting its own guidelines, the commission suggested a range of possible community expenses that could legitimately be covered by the fee — like police overtime, traffic studies directly related to the impacted area, and substance abuse programs. And those agreements could also impose nonmonetary requirements like giving preference to local residents in the hiring process or providing a paid police detail during peak hours.
But municipalities want even more. Fall River, for example, is looking for a 4 percent impact fee. Alternative Therapies Group, in its agreement with Amesbury, will pay an additional $25,000 annually to charity and that agreement extends beyond five years.
The commission could, if it chose to, put a stop to those stickups by reviewing those host agreements sooner rather than later. In the interest of expediency, they thus far have punted. It’s not too late for a do-over.