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4 lessons from the Mass. marijuana law roll-out

Marijuana plants inside a flowering room at a Fitchburg clinic.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Well, at least it’s a start.

More than two years after Massachusetts voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the first two stores are finally set to open on Tuesday, one in Northampton and the other in Leicester, where “budtenders” will help customers pick just the right pot-infused lozenge in sleek and stylish buildings resembling out-of-place Apple stores. Police details have been added for the expected throngs.

It’s a milestone (and it’s inspiring many eager shoppers to learn where Leicester is — Exit 10 off the Pike, by the way). But the long wait has been symbolic of some of the frustrating ways the legalization law has so far failed to live up to its potential to spur economic development and address inequities.


State and local officials can do better as the industry rollout continues. Too often, officials seem to run for the hills when the subject of marijuana comes up, or view stores as nothing more than opportunities to extract tax revenue. “In my view, we’re running into a lot of challenges because, generally, local and state officials are not caught up to where the people are,” said Shaleen Title, one of the five members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

If mayors, selectmen, and town officials start treating marijuana as something they have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to get right, here are four ways they could help steer the state’s marijuana industry in the right direction:

Equity needs a stronger push.
One of the goals of the marijuana law was to provide a boost to minority entrepreneurs. Both of the first two stores are white-owned. More worrisome, almost all the applicants in the queue are white too. Opening a brick-and-mortar business, or a growing facility, or a testing lab, is capital intensive. Some of the responsibility resides at the state level — the cannabis commission should be vocal in insisting on diversity in its licensees — but local leaders can help too, by adding more incentives for entrepreneurs of color. For instance, cities and towns could loosen up their zoning requirements for pot businesses to make them less expensive to operate.


The state needs to get moving on social consumption
. It’s not a substitute for minority ownership among retailers and growers, but one way to share at least some of the pot pie is to license less capital-intensive parts of the industry, like pot cafes and delivery services. Allowing these businesses will create more economic opportunities, and also more convenience for consumers: As stores open, customers may confront an odd scenario where they can buy marijuana legally but are unable to consume it legally (landlords can bar marijuana). Because of confusion over legal technicalities, it may require legislative action or new rules from Secretary of State William F. Galvin to move forward with social consumption venues.

Municipalities can do something about the unfair advantage of medical marijuana firms.
Both of the shops due to open on Tuesday were medical marijuana businesses first, which gave them a big head start that most minority-owned businesses lack. Somerville just passed an ordinance saying that for every license awarded to a medical marijuana company, the city must award at least one license to a state-certified economic empowerment applicant, locally owned retailer, or co-op. The rule is an innovative effort to ensure that medical marijuana firms don’t use their head start to dominate the industry.


The state also still needs to prevent unreasonable demands at the local level. To operate, both of the two inaugural stores agreed to pay substantial fees beyond annual revenue payments, which are capped at 3 percent by law. The commission believes it needs more authority granted by the Legislature to stop towns from demanding unreasonable payments, but authors of the law say the commission can clamp down under their existing authority. Whatever it takes, there needs to be transparent, clearly defined limits on what towns can extract from operators — both to encourage business and to prevent corruption.

Somerville’s rule is an example of what communities can do if they step up and take responsibility for how the marijuana law is implemented. Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, is another local official who has viewed the law as a chance to help his community, not a threat. Those are examples other officials should follow to make sure the state doesn’t end up with a replay of its liquor licensing system, which for too long has excluded minorities and stifled opportunity. Voters in 2016 said they wanted marijuana legalized in a way that created economic growth and reduced economic disparities, and now political leaders need to do their part to deliver.