When the US Attorney, the local head of the FBI office, and the state’s inspector general agree that Massachusetts pot shop laws are an open invitation to political corruption, it’s long past time for the Legislature to take a look at reforming them.
It would be easy to view the recent federal indictment of Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II, accused by prosecutors of extorting four marijuana vendors for some $575,000 in bribes, as an outlier — just another example of the greedy, stupid, and arrogant behavior displayed by the 27-year-old mayor already under indictment for allegedly defrauding investors in his SnoOwl app scheme.
But the case points to several troubling — and systemic — issues:
The enormous power local officials have to advance the ambitions of would-be pot vendors in their communities — or not.
The apparent willingness of some of those potential vendors to come up with huge sums of money to secure licenses — whether as an illegal bribe, as prosecutors say happened in Fall River, or by signing on to a host community agreement that commits them to fees and give-backs far in excess of what the law envisioned.
That in turn raises the issue of how on earth can individuals applying under social equity provisions of the state law hope to compete with the big money interests now capturing the market.
US Attorney Andrew Lelling, in announcing the Correia indictment, noted that the mayor had the sole authority to issue the so-called non-opposition letters required just to start the process of acquiring a marijuana license.
“It creates an enormous amount of temptation,” he said.
At the same news conference, Joseph Bonavolonta, FBI special agent in charge of the Boston office, called it “a perfect storm for corruption.”
State Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha said he hoped the indictment “will prompt the Cannabis Control Commission, the Legislature and other stakeholders to evaluate what additional safeguard or reforms are necessary.”
For its part, the commission issued a statement saying its standards “include mandatory disqualifications of applicants and licenses that have any outstanding or unresolved criminal proceeding that may result in a felony conviction.” Presumably that would mean trouble for the vendor who federal prosecutors identified as handing over to a middleman, in addition to cash, some 12 to 15 pounds of marijuana intended for resale.
Governor Charlie Baker and lawmakers have now suddenly been “woke” to the need for reform of the law sooner rather than later.
Several proposals to tighten the reins on those increasingly problematic host community agreements were given a hearing on Beacon Hill at the end of the July. Advocates long ago flagged many of those agreements as legalized “pay-to-play” schemes under which communities have been charging far more than the “impact fee” which is supposed to be capped at 3 percent.
Marijuana vendors vying for licenses have agreed to charitable “donations,” infrastructure improvements, and thousands of dollars for police details — all in addition to a cut of the proceeds. The Cannabis Control Commission, insisting it didn’t have the authority to look under the hood of such agreements, but merely whether one had been signed, punted to the Legislature to clarify its powers.
Now push has come to shove on that issue, and the Legislature certainly should clarify that the commission can oversee the agreements. But reforms shouldn’t stop there.
They should include providing a measure of transparency and an alternative to what in Fall River amounted to one-person rule. Of course, the alternative as practiced in Boston is fraught with its own complications. Here the Zoning Board of Appeal — yes, the same Zoning Board of Appeal already under federal scrutiny in the bribery case of John M. Lynch — holds enormous sway in determining where or even whether retail marijuana shops can locate.
At one point the ZBA had two (of its seven) members who were personally involved in marijuana businesses seeking Boston locations. Marie St. Fleur has since resigned to devote full time to that business, but Bruce Bickerstaff, an investor in Silver Therapeutics, remains.
Bickerstaff recuses himself during actual votes, and there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing by either Boston ZBA member, but in other communities links between local boards and the pot industry have raised concerns. For instance, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported on a member of the Grafton Select Board who resigned the day before seeking a host community agreement for a retail pot shop he was involved in. (And, yes, he got it.)
Surely it’s time to put some ethical constraints into practice and at least halt the planning-board-to-pot-purveyor revolving door.
Lelling has given every indication that he intends to pursue political corruption — weed-related or otherwise — in the days ahead. Wise public officials would want to clean up a system with so many avenues open to abuse before a trickle of indictments becomes a torrent.