Massachusetts voters voted in 2016 to allow the growing and sale of marijuana for recreational purposes, and last week the state’s Cannabis Control Commission issued its first permit for a retail outlet. The doors are not yet open because the dispensary still faces another level of inspections and background checks. Statewide implementation was initially delayed so the legislature could fine-tune the law. And many local communities, even those whose voters approved the referendum, have put moratoria on implementation. (Some 200 communities have issued outright bans.) Certainly, it’s better to do it right than rush it a few months and make mistakes. But NIMBY cities and towns who voted for the referendum yet bar or repeatedly delay retail sales should not be entitled to share in the state’s marijuana tax revenues.
The argument for legalizing pot was to be able to regulate for quality, eliminate the black market, and reap all sorts of tax revenues for both the state and local communities. That part makes sense, but it has to be done the right way. It’s not just a matter of providing state approval of purveyors and setting up shop. Labs must be licensed to test the product for purity and potency. No testing labs have yet been approved. Growing fields require separate licenses, the first of which got a provisional license just last week. Attorney General Maura Healey, an opponent of the referendum, last month approved further local extensions until June 2019.
She’s taking a lot of flack for it, and certainly continued extensions shouldn’t become a de facto ban. While you could argue this extension is not dramatically unreasonable, it still takes implementation three years away from the passage of the referendum. Cannabis Control Commission chair Steve Hoffman, who opposed the referendum but whose professionalism as chairman seems beyond question, reportedly said he doesn’t “see the logic” in the delay until June 2019. But there are legitimate considerations to be addressed now.
The major challenge for cities and towns is reshaping their zoning regulations. If they approve retail sales, what should be the allowable limit on stores in a particular community? How far away must a retail outlet be from school zones and residential neighborhoods? from day care centers and parks? Would they have to allow pot cafes? What is the projected impact on neighborhood traffic?
There are other unanswered questions, from reliably determining when a driver is marijuana-impaired to defining rights of employers doing drug testing. Is it legal to fire someone who tests positive for a legal substance and whose on-the-job performance isn’t compromised?
What is also unclear is what the impact will be on medical marijuana dispensaries if they expand into recreational products. Their current standards for patient privacy and counseling as well as security and cleanliness shouldn’t be sacrificed in expanding their offerings.
We’re in uncharted territory here, and, to mix a metaphor, the genie should come out of the bottle only when all i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed.