Our Opinion: Tricky balancing act for cannabis board

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The irony, said the chairman of the state's Cannabis Control Commission, is that he voted against legalizing recreational marijuana last November because he believed it was too complex a task to implement in a short time frame, and he is now charged with doing just that. For Steven Hoffman, it is a balancing act that he knows, if successful, "will make everyone unhappy" on both sides of the issue.

The chairman met with The Eagle's editorial board Friday before he joined his fellow commissions at a public hearing at Berkshire Community College. The commission is gathering feedback from around the state as it designs the network of regulations that will guide the cultivation, marketing and sale of recreational marijuana in the state. It will be legal to purchase on July 1 of 2018.

While the Legislature succeeded in crafting a marijuana law based on a vaguely worded referendum question, it did leave considerable discretion to the Cannabis Control Commission in terms of implementation. Mr. Hoffman told The Eagle that the balancing act entails addressing public safety concerns while taking advantage of an economic opportunity in the state, and assuring that small entrepreneurs are not squeezed out of that opportunity by big companies. The overriding goal, he continued is to eliminate or dramatically reduce the black market for marijuana, transforming it into a legal business that provides jobs and generates revenue for the state.

There are concerns on the part of many that crime, addiction and driving while high will accompany the cultivation and sale of marijuana in the state. A potential setback on the public safety front came Friday when the House dropped a funding commitment for substance abuse treatment, prevention and education from a marijuana tax bill after initially agreeing to spend as much as $50 million a year on those programs. A specific, guaranteed number is necessary, and it appears the Cannabis Control Commission may have to offer one as it establishes rules on public safety.

The organic farming of recreational marijuana, accompanied by safety measures governing the farming process, has considerable economic potential for the Berkshires. The legislation crafted on Beacon Hill guarantees an equal opportunity for small farms and co-ops, but there is no enforcement mechanism and the large medical marijuana cultivators established largely in the eastern end of the state are ready to hit the ground running. Mr. Hoffman, who was chosen to be chairman largely on the basis of his considerable upper management experience in the state's private sector, told The Eagle he is determined to make this new industry a profitable one for state businesses. For that to happen fairly, his commission must draw up ironclad rules that open the industry to businesses large and small from every county in the state.

The law's provision that entrepreneurial opportunities from recreational marijuana be targeted to "disproportionately affected communities" is well-meaning but potentially troubling. That provision, which is not defined, is thought to mean communities adversely impacted by the illegal sale of drugs — largely inner city neighborhoods — but it could result in inner cities serving as hosts for marijuana shops while the small towns, many in the Berkshires, that voted in favor of legalization but are adverse to the sale of recreational pot within their borders, to have it both ways. Making the state's Gateway Cities, of which Pittsfield is one, a focal point in this effort might inspire a way to benefit inner cities without injuring them.

Mr. Hoffman assured The Eagle that the process of crafting rules and regulations governing the cultivation, marketing and sale of marijuana will be transparent, and with the commission reaching out to the media, hosting public information sessions and inviting municipalities to come to the group with their concerns and questions, the goal of transparency is being met. The process in the months ahead will be complex and likely rancorous. Openness on the part of the commission, and lawmakers as well, is critical to the success of this fledgling industry and to addressing the legitimate fears of those of what this industry will mean to Massachusetts residents.

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