Recreational marijuana in Massachusetts typically carries a 20 percent tax: a maximum of 3 percent for the pot shop’s local government; 6.25 percent in a state sales tax for public school construction, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and the state general fund; and a 10.75 percent excise tax that, along with cannabis fines and fees, makes up the Marijuana Regulation Fund.
The fund covers marijuana public-awareness campaigns and the budget of regulators at the Cannabis Control Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The remainder, state law says, “shall be expended for” five causes: public health, public safety, municipal police training, illness prevention, and assistance for communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.
But none of those causes besides public health has received any marijuana money — and aren’t slated to this year or next year.
That’s because the law’s wording is vague and doesn’t specify how numerically the money should be divided among the five purposes, allowing the possibility that some don’t receive anything. The law also requires annual action by the Legislature and governor to allocate the money within the massive state budget where pot revenues, though sizable, can be overlooked among other priorities.
Since the revenues started flowing in July 2018, the fund has collected nearly $81 million through early January, state comptroller records show. Each year since, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has proposed using the funds to support the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, which the Legislature has approved.
So far, $13.9 million has funded cannabis regulators and $45.6 million was directed to the bureau —which Baker’s administration sees as fulfilling the law’s requirements.
But to minority community advocates, the state is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
“Certainly some of that money from this fund does need to get intentionally slotted into the restorative economic development and war on drugs remediation efforts that the law requires,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s cannabis policy committee.
Chang-Díaz was among the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus members who in 2017 fought for the tax provision as lawmakers wrote the provisions of the law after voters passed a referendum calling for it. They aimed to redress the racially disparate harms of prohibition. For example, one study showed Black people in Massachusetts were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 than whites, despite similar consumption rates.
At the time, Chang-Díaz said, the caucus members understood that the law as written would likely not result in money flowing to their communities. They figured they would need to tweak the law’s wording to include a numeric carve-out, she said, but that wasn’t politically feasible then amid uncertainty about the money.
“I knew we would have to come back and fight to get specific money into that bucket,” Chang-Díaz said, “but it was a win to get the strong foothold.”
Baker’s administration said it supports people of color and police in many ways outside of marijuana revenues and touted a 175 percent increase in proposed spending to address substance abuse since taking office. Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for Baker, noted the administration shares control over the cannabis money with the Legislature.
The administration said it funds causes important to Black and Latino communities: job training, jail diversion, reentry services for the formerly incarcerated, youth summer jobs, and entrepreneur grants. Federal money supports police training on drugged-driving.
It’s too early to predict whether the administration would support distributing the marijuana revenues to more purposes in the future, MacCormack said.
That the marijuana taxes haven’t funded anything new runs counter to people’s expectations, cannabis advocates said.
“Common sense would be that it would fund new things and new initiatives,” said Shaleen Title, a Cannabis Control commissioner. “You want to use those funds in a way that is related [to legalization] and fair.”