Our Opinion: Fairness needed in marijuana law

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The host community agreements in the state's law governing retail sales of marijuana in the state contained a gaping hole that wasn't exposed until towns and cities began exploiting it. On Wednesday, the House began the process of closing it.

The State House News Service reports that the House gave its initial approval to a bill enabling the Cannabis Control Commission the right to review, regulate and enforce the contracts between marijuana businesses and their host communities. The bill was approved unanimously a day earlier by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The 2016 state law stipulates that a community impact fee of no more than 3 percent of gross sales can be imposed upon a marijuana retailer. Almost immediately following the law's enactment, however, communities and their consultants decided that the law did not forbid demanding separate fees or "donations" from retailers eager to open up a shop in town beyond the impact fee. Lanesborough, at the recommendation of its consultant, requested a 2 percent community benefit fee of an applicant proposing to open a pot retail establishment in the former Arizona Pizza stores on Route 8. The applicant agreed to the stipulation, although grudgingly.

Marijuana advocates point out that one of the goals of the state law was to encourage low-income residents to participate in the retail business. This is not happening to the degree anticipated, and advocates argue that with towns piling on fees and asking for donations for community projects, low-income advocates are being weeded out in favor of those with deep pockets, such as the Lanesborough applicant, a New York City chocolatier.

Last November, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling of Massachusetts issued subpoenas to six communities, including Great Barrington, requesting information on the host community agreements with marijuana retailers in their communities. While it is not specifically known what Mr. Lelling knows or suspects, The Eagle warned in an editorial of August 6 that the practice of taxing on additional fees outside of those specified by the state law was an invitation to abuse. ("Our Opinion: Towns wrong to hit pot stores with fees.")

The CCC has requested clarity on what it can do about such agreements and the legislation before the House provides it. It would have the authority to review the host community agreements and reject those that use loopholes in the law to shake down prospective pot retailers. Ideally, the Legislature will revisit the law and close off the loopholes.

The House will consider amendments to the bill but we urge it be passed without any qualifiers that may weaken it. The Senate should then follow up with its own version. The state's marijuana law has already shown that there is a market for legal marijuana in the state that can benefit communities with tax revenue. Communities seeking even more revenue than the law allows cannot be allowed to choke off an industry that is still in its infancy or deprive those of low-income from reaping a part of the spoils.

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