As such, Massachusetts’s new era of legalization is proving to be more of a Civics 101 course in local control rather than the flourishing new industry many had anticipated. With a Wild West of town-by-town regulatory action threatening existing medical dispensaries and new entrepreneurs’ ability to enact their statutory rights to engage in this new legal industry, July 1, 2018 — commonly cited as the grand opening for the industry — will arrive with a whimper and not a bang with perhaps a small handful (my over-under: 3.5) open for business. Expect long-lines, limitations on purchases, and sold-out stores by mid-day.
In short, legalization is only as real as Massachusetts’ cities and towns are willing to make it.
The reason: The complicated negotiating process a would-be operator needs to go through to gain local permission. Before the Cannabis Control Commission will even consider issuing a license, and in addition to zoning, siting, and the likely locally-imposed special permitting requirement, a business must obtain a signed “host community agreement” – an agreement establishing the terms and conditions to be imposed on the prospective business’s operation, including a “community impact fee” of up to 3 percent of the business’s gross revenues. Per state statute, this fee must be tied to the costs cited by the municipality for hosting the business.
But there is a catch.
While state statute makes clear that if a municipality voted “yes” on Question 4 and wishes to restrict or otherwise ban adult-use establishments, the city must go back to the voters, the Cannabis Control Commission’s regulations provide carte blanche authority to the municipalities in terms of the host community agreements. With no oversight to ensure they are tied to actual costs, no statewide standardization or review of such agreements, and no requirement that a “yes” community ever even sign such an agreement, cities and towns may choose – in effect – to ignore the statute and the will of the voters. This includes the more than 85 existing medical operators who have a statutory right to begin adult-use operations – arguably in July.
As someone who has spent many hours over the past five years working with local and state officials in this new field, I believe we need to find a middle ground between municipalities’ right to regulate and the new industry’s rights to operate. No other advanced manufacturing, job-creating, revenue-generating, legal industry has been met with such trepidation or confusion.
More positively, while the vast majority of municipalities have taken a cautious, if not prohibitionist approach, municipalities including Holyoke, Easthampton, Worcester, Newton, Boston, Salem, and even “no” community Brewster have elected and appointed leaders who are taking proactive stances to responsibly regulate the industry, recognizing that it’s here to stay.