From the Beacon, September 2018

Over the past few weeks, paid lobbyists for the billion-dollar commercial marijuana industry have continued their campaign to marginalize and restrict local government’s role in the process, even though cities and towns have vital decision-making responsibilities in how this nascent industry is built out in neighborhoods across Massachusetts.

Until this month, the industry hysteria and harping has been directed at the temporary moratoriums that many communities have put in place to allow adequate time to update local zoning bylaws. Advocates have conflated these measures with the much smaller number of permanent bans that have been voted by residents in about 50 communities. Using fuzzy math and other distorting tactics, the marijuana campaign team has been highly critical of communities, even though local officials are simply approaching the adoption of bylaw and zoning updates in a deliberative manner, following a necessary process to allow adequate public input, review and consideration.

The latest chapter in the unfolding marijuana story is the industry’s attempt to pressure the Cannabis Control Commission and Legislature into micromanaging and restricting local host community agreements (HCAs). Fortunately, at its Aug. 23 meeting, the CCC voted to reject this unwarranted intrusion into local negotiations. Marijuana lobbyists, however, will likely turn their focus to the Legislature next session, so this is an issue that must be monitored.

Municipal officials are upholding their responsibilities regarding marijuana legalization in a balanced way that addresses the impacts on residents, businesses, neighborhoods, economic development plans, and other important considerations. As part of the implementation process, municipalities and private recreational marijuana establishments have been negotiating terms in their HCAs. These negotiations have taken place with both sides coming to the table to reach agreement freely and in good faith.

Communities are acting within the regulations promulgated by the CCC, but the marijuana statute and regulations are just part of the picture. Chapter 40 of the Massachusetts General Laws provides cities and towns with broad contracting authority to act on behalf of their residents and taxpayers. This is the underlying statute that empowers city and town governments to protect and advance the interests of their communities. Chapter 94G (the marijuana law) does not erode this authority, although it does cap the community impact fee at 3 percent, require the community impact fee to be reasonably related to costs imposed upon the community, and limits the community impact fee agreement to five years.

The marijuana statute does not prevent, limit or cap other payments, fees or arrangements that are mutually agreeable. In its own regulations, the CCC also notes that while HCAs should address all of the responsibilities of each party under the law, the agreements are not limited to the community impact fee alone. Therefore, the HCAs can include other items that are mutually agreed to.

There are many other excellent examples of municipal contracts with commercial entities that provide for community-interest initiatives. These are common in housing and industrial developments, cable franchise agreements, tax increment financing for commercial development, motion picture productions, expanded gaming (casinos), and more. Cities and towns commonly use these contracts to negotiate monetary, in-kind and development donations to support nonprofit service provider organizations and activities within their communities.

As The Beacon went to press, there were at least 95 completed marijuana license applications pending before the CCC. Presumably, all of these applications are accompanied by an HCA that was mutually agreed to by the applicants and their host communities. It’s good news that many of these include support for education, health, and other initiatives to benefit and advance the public interest. Examples include donations to local nonprofits to provide drug and alcohol education in schools, community education and outreach initiatives, and other worthy endeavors. The state should be encouraging these arrangements, not dampening the opportunity for public benefits.

The MMA opposes state intrusion into the HCA process, and is urging the CCC and legislators to resist pressure from the marijuana industry’s lobbyists. Contracting between local governments and private entities is a long-established practice, and state interference could have long-term effects on the ability of municipalities to contract freely, even outside the marijuana industry. Additionally, it is likely that once the marijuana industry becomes more established in Massachusetts, and the market becomes saturated, private marijuana firms will gain the upper hand in the negotiations. Tying the hands of municipalities now would severely limit their ability to come to the table as equals later, and could undermine local government’s ability to represent the public’s interest in a balanced setting.

As noted above, the implementation of new zoning bylaws and ordinances takes time, and municipalities should be afforded latitude to establish the marijuana industry in a way that is agreeable to the constituents in their respective communities. This includes the ability to properly vet private marijuana establishments and negotiate agreeable terms in host community agreements.

It seems more than a bit ironic that the marijuana lobby is using alarmist tactics to heighten tension, politicize, and add stress on this issue. We hope that the CCC and Legislature will continue to stand strong against pressure from the cannabis industry to short-circuit the public process, since the industry’s clear motive is to advance its own private interests.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO