Well, this much is clear: Big Weed has come to Massachusetts, a thoughtfully crafted state law notwithstanding.
Marijuana legalization was supposed to provide economic opportunities to state residents, especially those from communities hurt most by prohibition. But the law — and the myriad regulations that flow from it — is only as good as those committed to enforcing it. And when it comes to enforcing the three-license limit on pot shop ownership there’s a level of either buck-passing or muddleheadedness — or both — that is subverting its original intent.
The Globe Spotlight Team found that three major national players are poised to dominate the local medical and recreational marijuana scene — either through direct ownership, management contracts, or high-interest loans to smaller operators who didn’t know what they were getting into when they jumped on board the weed bandwagon.
So far, Spotlight has identified Sea Hunter Therapeutics, which has two facilities open (in Quincy and Taunton), but has a relationship with 11 others in the licensing pipeline. Its main competitor is Acreage, which admits to ownership of three facilities under The Botanist label but is affiliated with nine others through management contracts or loans. Curaleaf has four marijuana stores in Massachusetts that are open or in development and is in the process of acquiring a company with three more — for a total of seven.
There are other national outfits getting a piece of the action — but the pattern is fairly clear. The real losers in all this are local entrepreneurs, including those in minority communities who might qualify under the law’s social justice and equity provisions.
What is most astonishing, however, is that two state bureaucracies have to date done little to halt what amounts to an unhealthy consolidation of the marijuana industry.
One document recently obtained by Spotlight was an August 2018 memo from the Department of Public Health, which at that time regulated medical marijuana facilities. It found a number of entities holding medical marijuana licenses were “using Department loopholes to hide Acreage or Sea Hunter Therapeutics, LLC’s affiliations.” It said some firms “created shell companies” to hide their connections to the larger firms.
So as far back as last summer DPH knew it had a problem. But it also knew it wouldn’t have it for long. At the end of December, DPH transferred its authority over medical marijuana licensing to the Cannabis Control Commission — as anticipated by the law that set up the regulatory framework for recreational marijuana.
One of the regulations the commission reissued, effective last Dec. 23, was this one:
“No executive, member, or any entity owned or controlled by such executive or member, may directly or indirectly control more than three RMDs [Registered Marijuana Dispensaries].”
Not a lot of ambiguity there, especially the reference to “directly or indirectly.”
In a followup to the first Globe Spotlight piece, the commission acknowledged it had received records from DPH about possible violations of those license caps and initiated an investigation soon after.
The commission has taken a certain pride in the “moderated pace” of its rollout of recreational licensing. “We’re doing this in a careful way,” Steven Hoffman, the commission chairman, told the Globe in a recent meeting with the editorial board.
But possible abuses of the law require something more than the commission’s glacial pace. As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, it falls to Attorney General Maura Healey to conduct a review of whether there have been intentional efforts to subvert the law here — and setting up shell corporations would certainly fall into that category.
“We are encouraged that the Cannabis Control Commission is looking into the recent reports of possible licensing violations,” according to a spokeswoman for Healey. “Our office will continue to be a resource for the commission as it works to ensure that participants in this new industry act in compliance with the law.”
That’s not an encouraging sign. Keeping a check on Big Weed will require a more aggressive stance than the attorney general’s call-us-if-you-need-us approach to enforcement.
Every time Big Weed takes over, a local business opportunity is lost. The question remains: Do the commission and the attorney general have the political will to halt that encroachment?