Cannabis Control Commission facing big test as draft regs hit turbulence

Retail markets scheduled to open by July 1

(AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Two years later, many of the same groups that contested the ballot question to legalize marijuana are clashing again over the scope of the newly-legal industry, setting up the state’s young regulatory agency for its most crucial decisions yet later this month.

As contemplated in the Cannabis Control Commission’s draft regulations, the marijuana industry in Massachusetts would include home delivery of cannabis, establishments where users could purchase single servings of marijuana and consume it on-site, licenses for delivery-only dispensaries, the ability for businesses like cinemas and massage parlors to also offer limited marijuana products, and more.

Whether that’s ultimately the industry that takes hold here remains up to the CCC, which plans to hold public meetings later this month to decide whether to forge ahead with the regulations it unanimously adopted less than two months ago, or bow to pressure to keep things simple and proceed with caution.

“I think the process is working exactly the way it should, which is that we put our draft regulations out, we’re getting feedback and comments from elected officials, from industry groups, from advocacy groups, and we’re going to go and meet in public again,” CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman said. “And we’ll talk about the feedback and we’ll try to make the best judgments we can about what modifications are needed to our draft regulations before they’re finalized.”

Hoffman said the CCC, which wraps up its listening tour of the state this week, will hold several days of public meetings during the last week of February to decide what, if any, changes to make to the proposed regulations.

Regulators say their draft rules envision an industry that’s accessible not just to the well-capitalized, and includes social consumption options as potential strategies for reducing the risk of children getting a hold of the drug and limiting how much legal marijuana is illegally transported out of state by tourists.

The CCC’s rough draft for the legal cannabis sphere has come under fire in recent days from many of the same people and groups who in 2016 campaigned to prevent adult marijuana use from becoming legal in Massachusetts, including Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, district attorneys and drug use prevention advocates.

On Friday, the state’s district attorneys told the CCC they think the agency’s draft regulations “go far beyond the scope of the law and the Commission’s authority” and urged that the regulators “take a slow, cautious and restrictive approach to marijuana business development.”

“Immediately allowing marijuana in restaurants, coffee shops, theaters, spas and yoga studios is irresponsible, ill-informed and dangerous. If, at the onset, the Commission authorizes these unintended businesses, then there will be no turning back!” Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey wrote in his capacity as president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

Earlier Friday, the Baker administration’s energy and environment secretariat said the CCC should spend its time and effort on establishing energy efficiency and environmental standards for the marijuana industry in Massachusetts, rather than trying to launch an expansive industry all at once.

“We are concerned, however, that the Commission’s draft regulations leave those standards unspecified, and we therefore strongly recommend that the Commission amend the draft regulations to ensure that substantive energy efficiency and environmental standards are established prior to initial licensure,” top EEA lawyer Tori Kim wrote.

The EEA letter served as a bookend for the week, paired with a letter Baker’s budget and finance office sent at the beginning of the week warning the CCC it had bitten off more than it can chew if it is to launch a legal retail market by July 1.

Hoffman defended the process the CCC used to develop the draft regulations and suggested that the type of industry the regulations describe is in keeping with the law passed by voters and amended by the Legislature.

“It was about trying to honor the will of the people in terms of accessibility, public safety, minimizing the illicit market, creating opportunities for minorities, women and veterans, and allowing for the participation of disproportionately impacted communities,” he said. “So it’s not just one thing, it’s literally the entire law that we used to try to make judgments on things like how many categories of licenses we would issue.”

The CCC’s draft regs were adopted unanimously by the five-person panel, which was appointed by three marijuana legalization opponents — Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. And the pushback to the regulations in recent days threw many of the activists and organizations that worked to make marijuana legal onto the defensive.

“A lot of the pushback that we’re seeing is about maintaining the status quo; keeping things simple, keeping things the same. Unfortunately, simple means inequitable and we’re not standing for that anymore,” Shanel Lindsay, a cannabis businesswoman who helped draft the voter law and now serves on the Cannabis Advisory Board, said Thursday. “The Cannabis Control Commission did a very good job of coming up with straightforward and clear solutions that are easily managed and that we as a community support.”

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a CAB member, said the Baker administration’s warning to the CCC “was a reminder of who’s your daddy.”

“‘We are your daddy, we control your money…’ that’s what that letter was about,” Small said Thursday at a meeting at which a CAB subcommittee reaffirmed its recommendation that the CCC pursue a broad and accessible cannabis industry.

Baker, who has said he does not want the rollout of adult use marijuana to be as slow and byzantine as the state’s implementation of the medical marijuana law voters put on the books four years earlier, on Thursday suggested that the CCC should focus on getting the bones of an industry up and running before tackling the rest.

“Some of this other ancillary stuff, if that’s something they want to come back to at some point, I don’t see any reason why they can’t,” the governor said.

Hoffman has maintained that the CCC can meet its deadlines and have a legal cannabis market running in Massachusetts on July 1, and that the agency does not need to limit its focus to do so.

“We’re going to do this right. If we can’t do it right and meet our deadline, we’ll do it right and push the deadline back,” he said. “But right now I’m convinced that we can do it both right and on time.”