MORE THAN TWO YEARS after voters passed Question 4 to legalize adult-use cannabis, retail sales are about to finally begin. It promises to be a remarkable moment but also a chaotic debut. There will be only two recreational cannabis stores open in the entire Commonwealth, and, in fact, the only two east of the Mississippi. Lines will be long and supplies short. A handful of retail shops will follow in the months ahead, but it is fair to ask, why so few after so much time?
The big-picture answer is, while the people of Massachusetts said yes, officials on the city and town level often say no. The loudest voices fight against cannabis on the local level while the majority in favor of adult-use sales are not being heard. With legalization, we’re witnessing an instructive paradigm of political power in Massachusetts: a progressive Blue State on one level but also a collection of small towns that tend to approach change with caution.
The pro-marijuana majority, including a new generation with more relaxed views about marijuana, often is being disenfranchised by entrenched local power. This cannabis conundrum reflects a demographic and political divide that plays out in concentrations of tight control on town oversight boards and elected bodies. I call them the gatekeepers, many who serve in volunteer roles in their town for decades and often times answer to a vocal minority.
As an attorney who represents marijuana firms before local boards, I have met a wide range of town officials. They typically are dedicated, intelligent, and committed to the wellbeing of their town. When they stop or delay the progress of the cannabis industry in their communities, they firmly believe they are doing the right thing. Although their fears are unfounded, I find it hard to blame these boards and committees, because the very people who voted for Question 4 aren’t out advocating to bring legalization across the finish line in their local towns. Instead, one usually hears from either residents who share the Nixonian view on the evils of marijuana, or parents who fear their children will be turned into potheads by proximity to legal retail cannabis.
They are mistaken in believing that by locking the door to the industry in their town they are keeping their communities “safe.” Marijuana already is abundant in their communities, only it is sold illicitly, not tested for safety, and not taxed. Instead, adult-use legalization will make consumption of marijuana far safer and sold by well-trained business people who will pay a considerable amount in local taxes. The Cannabis Control Commission has very carefully thought through safety concerns, and new licensees are carefully vetted and inspected.
One reason for this lack of counterbalance on the grassroots level is the generation gap in local government. Although issues that play out in their communities often are highly relevant to their futures, younger citizens can be turned off by the seemingly arcane processes and slow-moving nature of various boards and committees. More participation is critical in reflecting the true will of the people, as we saw with zoning for adult-use cannabis in Boston. With more people weighing in on the process, the city arrived at a progressive, forward-looking result, a tribute to Mayor Marty Walsh, clearly no fan of legalization, and the responsiveness of the administration and City Council.
When the majority is given an easy opportunity to be heard, like on Election Day, voters continue to give cannabis a thumbs up. Newton residents earlier this month defeated two non-binding referendums that called for limiting or banning outright adult-use sales. It was a defeat of unfounded fear and an affirmation that cannabis legalization will yield a safe industry in Massachusetts. It is a lesson more cities and towns will learn, albeit slowly, as a new era takes root.
Jim Smith is an attorney at Smith, Costello & Crawford Public Policy Law Group.