Healey decision sparks debate over marijuana industry rollout

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BOSTON — Marijuana advocates claim a Mansfield bylaw ruling by Attorney General Maura Healey delivers a "devastating setback" to efforts to set up legal recreational pot shops, but a municipal leader and officials in Healey's office say efforts are continuing to implement the voter law quickly, safely and with local considerations factored in.

The Boston Globe reported Monday that Healey, by approving Mansfield's request to extend its temporary moratorium on pot shops and marijuana businesses through June 2019, is enabling cities and towns to "unilaterally prohibit cannabis companies for another year without seeking local voter approval."

"The Attorney General's unnecessary ruling is a devastating setback for a voter-approved legalization measure that has already seen significant delays," James Borghesani, a spokesman for the coalition behind the 2016 voter law, said in a statement Monday. "Towns have zoned for tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals for years. It is a fiction that they need more time to figure out how to zone for cannabis."

But Healey's office, from which local bylaws must secure approval before they take effect, said it has already approved 55 zoning bylaws that allow marijuana establishments, with 25 more pending for decisions, and has issued decisions, on average, 60 days before the office's deadline. The decision on Mansfield does not mean the office will approve all similar requests on moratorium extensions, the official said, since bylaw reviews are done on a case by case basis.

"Our office will continue to help implement the new marijuana legalization law as quickly and safely as possible," Healey spokeswoman Emalie Gainey said in a statement. "While many communities have enacted bylaws that will allow marijuana establishments, a small number have expressed a need for some additional time to address implementation of recreational marijuana licensing, sales, and facilities. Given ongoing regulatory activity by the Cannabis Control Commission, such temporary local moratoriums are consistent with state law."

About 70 cities and towns in Massachusetts have banned retail marijuana shops and such shops are also not allowed in another 135 communities with temporary moratoriums in place, according to Borghesani. He said cities and towns, not the Cannabis Control Commission, are to blame for holding up licensing efforts and the launch of a retail market.

"They can't issue licenses for applications that don't have host community agreements attached to them," Borghesani said. "Many towns are simply not moving forward on these."

Mansfield Town Manager Kevin Dumas said the moratorium extension merely gives the town enough time to put bylaws governing marijuana cultivation and sales before the town's voters in the fall, and to develop a backup plan if voters do not agree to the proposal.

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Only a "handful" of moratorium extension requests have been made with the attorney general's office, an official in Healey's office said. Some communities want to wait and see how regulators handle licensing for social consumption, or marijuana cafes, the official said, and regulations governing that topic have been delayed by regulators until February 2019.

Borghesani cast doubt on the prospects of retail marijuana sales beginning on July 1, predicting "maybe one or two" recreational licenses will be issued in July and most likely will be granted to entities currently operating as medical marijuana dispensaries.

One of Healey's Republican opponents criticized the attorney general.

"Can you say overreach?!" Jay McMahon tweeted. "Unlike @Maura_Healey, I would never circumvent process or unilaterally deem state law(s) unconstitutional. Nor would I ignore the will of voters. Why? Activism is simply not in the job description."

The Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association accused Healey of "subverting state law."

"The Attorney General's recent ruling on the Town of Mansfield's proposed moratorium has the potential of severely threatening Massachusetts's job-creating, 2 billion dollar industry, subverting state law and the will of the people who voted for legalization over 20 months ago," the association said. "Should this ruling stand, municipalities will be given three times longer than the state's cannabis commission -- or more than two years -- to develop regulations."

Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said it was ironic that Mansfield's case was cited as a problem since the town is in the process of trying to open itself up to marijuana cultivation and sales.

"They will be implementing commercial sales. They just want to have the time to implement those changes in a way that works with neighborhoods in their community," Beckwith said. "The attorney general has been very reasonable and deliberative throughout this entire process."

Beckwith estimated that more than 175 communities have no restrictions in place on marijuana sales. And while Borghesani said host community agreements loom as a threat to the industry's rollout, Beckwith suggested undercapitalized entrepreneurs could represent a roadblock to the industry's growth.


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