With a key legislative deadline rapidly approaching, Governor Charlie Baker is calling for Massachusetts lawmakers to vote on a sweeping marijuana business reform bill that would reshape the multi-billion-dollar industry.
In an interview last week on WGBH, Baker called the measure “important,” and added, “I certainly hope it gets to my desk” before the Legislature’s current session ends July 31.
Slightly differing versions of the omnibus legislation sailed through the House and Senate earlier this year with overwhelming 153-2 and 39-0 votes, respectively. The leaders of both chambers have said they support the bill, which among other provisions, would crack down on municipal fees charged to marijuana operations, direct some pot tax revenue into a fund for disenfranchised entrepreneurs in the sector, and clear the way for a cannabis café pilot program.
Baker said Thursday it is essentially a “corrective” bill that clarifies the original legalization law.
Despite high-level political support, however, the proposal has been stalled for weeks in a legislative conference committee charged with ironing out the differences between the House and Senate drafts.
One potential sticking point is how much of the state’s 10.75 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana sales will be used to fund loans and grants for so-called “equity applicants” — essentially, local startups with founders from communities hit hard by drug arrests — trying to break into the industry. The Senate bill pegged the proportion at 10 percent, while the House version set aside 20 percent.
The drafts also differ slightly in how they would encourage municipalities to consider equity when deciding which prospective cannabis operators receive local approval.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents the state’s 351 cities and towns, has emerged as the loudest opponent of the bill, repeatedly blasting a provision that would give the Cannabis Control Commission authority to reject “host community agreements” that impose excessive fees on marijuana firms.
Operators have complained since the advent of the industry that the steep “impact” fees they must pay under the agreements outstrip any negative impact they might have on local communities. They argue the practice amounts to little more than a government shakedown that has kept smaller firms out of the burgeoning industry, and point to federal cases in Fall River and Medford as proof that the process is ripe for corruption.
“It has never been clearer that the rules for municipalities to select businesses should be strengthened,” said former cannabis commission members Steve Hoffman and Shaleen Title in a recent letter urging legislators to advance the bill. “The host-community agreement process has been abused to the detriment of small and minority-owned businesses for almost six years straight now.”
While a few cities and towns have said they can no longer justify the fees, most have continued the practice, with the municipal association saying the payments were negotiated in good faith and serve as an incentive for communities to host cannabis businesses.
It is unclear whether that debate is behind the ongoing legislative delay. Senate President Karen Spilka and leaders of the conference committee did not comment Friday. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Ron Mariano declined to comment on the conference committee’s closed-door negotiations but said, “this is one of the Speaker’s priorities and he’s hoping to get it done.”
Two State House insiders with knowledge of the negotiations said the lag is due more to insider horse-trading involving other pending legislation than any substantive disagreement over the content of the cannabis bill.
Regardless of the reasons, advocates and regulators are concerned that the clock is running out.
A coalition led by the Equitable Opportunities Now advocacy group that includes the ACLU, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and the Boston Foundation is leaning on lawmakers to “get this bill done on time and to get it done right.“
“Despite Question 4′s intent to foster equitable participation in the Massachusetts cannabis market, for the last six years, well-financed operators from out of state have dominated the industry,” said Darien Johnson, the policy and advocacy lead at the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. “Black and Brown entrepreneurs cannot afford to wait for another two year [legislative] session.”
The Cannabis Control Commission itself has also lobbied in favor of many parts of the bill, saying the fund for equity entrepreneurs is especially critical if the agency hopes to meet its statutory mandate of creating an inclusive and diverse industry that recognizes past racial disparities in the enforcement of pot prohibition.
Grant Smith, a leading marijuana advocate whose call-in question on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” show last week prompted the governor’s remarks Thursday, said the Legislature’s failure to advance the measure is frustrating.
“Despite the positive comments from the governor, and repeated public support from both Senate and House leadership, there are now less than 10 days remaining in the formal legislative session for this crucially important bill to become law,” he said. “The thought that legislation of such consequence could be left to race against the clock after nearly three years of debate is confounding.”