Our Opinion: Clarity is needed on pot law end-runs

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In crafting the state's law legalizing the sale of marijuana and specifying how it be carried out, the Legislature didn't anticipate that some communities would go around the law to squeeze a few more bucks out of applicants for retail sales licenses. Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steven Hoffman would like clarity and enforcement powers, and lawmakers should give him both.

Mr. Hoffman met with The Eagle editorial board on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the opening of the first retail marijuana stores in Massachusetts. He said that 33 retail stores have opened since that date and noted that the western end of the state has been most aggressive in opening retail establishments.

The law allows cities and towns to impose a 3 percent mitigation fee on retailers to cover related expenses, such as increased police patrols to handle traffic around stores. However, some towns are requiring additional contributions from applicants in the form of voluntary donations, the building of a park, or the buying of a piece of equipment for the city if they are to get a license. The town of Lanesborough, for example, asked an applicant for a "local community benefit" fee of 2 percent of sales on top of the 3 percent fee. This practice will weed out the lower-income applicants that the state wants to share in the growth of this new industry. Even those applicants who can afford the additional requirements should not be shaken down to fill a town's financial wish list.

"I don't have a position on what should be allowable and what shouldn't be allowable," Mr. Hoffman told The Eagle. "I have a position of, 'just tell me, what is allowable. Just give me specificity.'"

Lawmakers should provide the CCC, along with municipalities and retail applicants, with that specificity by amending the law to ban town and city officials from seeking any form of financial compensation from retailers beyond the 3 percent mitigation fee described in the law. A grand jury impaneled by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling out of Boston in the wake of a retail marijuana application controversy in Fall River has issued subpoenas to at least six communities, Great Barrington among them, seeking details on the community agreements they have with marijuana businesses located within their borders. It isn't known what Mr. Lelling and the grand jury are looking for, but the gap in the host agreements does invite abuses by municipalities that Beacon Hill must close when it returns from its holiday recess.

The component of the law allowing cities and towns to collect mitigation fees may also be used as what constitutes a cost generated by the presence of a marijuana retailer in town could be open for interpretation. The CCC should have enforcement powers, perhaps through a series of fines, to assure that communities don't stretch the law to require retailers to pay for town costs they should not be responsible for. Legislators are currently considering providing those powers.

While at The Eagle, Mr. Hoffman spoke of the need for more than the current four Massachusetts banks to do business with marijuana retailers. The problem is that marijuana sales and usage remain illegal under federal law and most banks are understandably reluctant to cross that line. Unfortunately, while House Democrats have shown an interest in legalizing marijuana, which is long overdue, there is no indication that a Republican Senate wants to do so, which means there will be continue to be a stalemate for the foreseeable future.

While highlighting the CCC's efforts to ensure social equity in the licensing process through economic empowerment and training programs for minorities or those of low income, Mr. Hoffman said "cities and towns have to be part of the solution." He also expressed concern that the state still has only two product-testing laboratories, which could create a bottleneck if more are not opened to serve the increasing number of retail outlets. The growth of outdoor growing facilities may be hampered by concerns about odor, which is happening in some Berkshire communities. Mr. Hoffman stressed that this is strictly a local zoning issue not under the purview of the CCC.

Mr. Hoffman described the first year of retail as a successful one, adding that there remains a lot of work to do. Some of that work will have to be done at Beacon Hill in the form of clarity on what municipalities can and cannot do when it comes to seeking financial contributions from marijuana retailers.

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