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Massachusetts House Approves Bill To Amend Cannabis Laws

The Massachusetts House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday to approve a bill amending the state’s weed laws, including significant social equity investments and the addition of cannabis consumption cafes to the state’s roster of regulated pot businesses. This bill is almost identical in content to one passed in April by the Massachusetts Senate. The House approved it 153-2.

Ron Mariano, House speaker, made a statement which was quoted in the Boston Globe, saying the bill aims “to create a fair and successful cannabis industry, fostering equitable opportunities to those disproportionately impacted by the systemic racism of historic drug policy.”

This bill changes several Massachusetts cannabis laws. In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a referendum measure that legalized cannabis use for adults. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission released a report that stated that recreational marijuana sellers in Massachusetts have made more than $3 Billion in sales since 2016.

Adam Fine, a partner with the cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg, says that the “legislation marks the House of Representatives’ first significant movement on cannabis since adult-use legalization.”

“Components of the bill address some of the concerns that have been identified over the past five years, particularly around social equity, host community agreements and movement towards allowing social consumption sites,” Fine wrote in an email to Chronic News. “The proposal creates the Social Equity Trust fund for social equity operators and provides a mechanism for money to be raised to help applicants enter the cannabis space.”

New Investments in Social Equity

The bill will direct 20% of pot tax revenue collected by the state to be invested in social equity cannabis businesses. It is more than double what was in the Senate bill, and it’s higher than the 15% in an earlier version.

It would make a significant difference to have more funding. Massachusetts has collected $124.5m in recreational cannabis excise tax revenues between July 2021 to April 2018. The House bill would have more than $25million in state funding to support social justice cannabis companies.

Under the state’s current social equity program, only 23 of the state’s 253 licensed cannabis businesses are owned by entrepreneurs qualified for the economic empowerment and social equity programs administered by the Cannabis Control Commission. Equitable Opportunities Now’s co-founder Shanel Lindsay thanked lawmakers for their changes and encouraged senators not to reduce the percentage in any compromise bill.

“Without this funding, our equity goals are just hollow promises,” Lindsay said.

Each version of the bill requires local governments to take into account social equity considerations when issuing permits. By making it easier to expunge past marijuana convictions or arrests, the House bill makes more offenders eligible for relief. It also requires judges to grant all expungement petitions, eliminating much of the discretion they have to decline requests.

“We mean it when we say our residents have the right to keep these records from following them around for life,” said state Representative Michael Day.

Massachusetts The Bill Reforms Facilitate Community Agreements

The legislation also includes a provision to reform host community agreements, which are the local licensing agreements that local cannabis businesses make with their local governments. Cannabis operators and applicants for licenses have argued that community impact fees included in such agreements by local governments exceed the cannabis industry’s negative effects on the community.

Both House and Senate versions limit impact fees. They require local governments and agencies to disclose any potential negative effects, and then set appropriate fees. States regulators will have the power to refuse plans that are excessively expensive.

“Without enforcement, we’ve seen some communities push the bounds further than allowed by law, this legislation will make local permitting straightforward and allow more social equity applicants to move through the local process,” said Fine.

While the Senate bill is longer, the House bill eliminates impact fees for weed businesses that have been in operation for less than five years. It also gives the Cannabis Control Commission 45 calendar days to examine local agreements.

“The municipality literally has the upper hand in these negotiations, and many have used it to a fault,” said state Representative Daniel Donahue. He added that the legislation would help create a “legal, fair, and honest” cannabis industry in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Municipal Association of Local Governments opposed the proposed change. They claimed that the impact fees changes were an opportunity for marijuana operators to make more money at the expense of the local community.

“The key issues for cities and towns include making certain that the final version of legislation doesn’t interfere with existing host community agreements, and making sure that communities can collect adequate community impact fees going forward,” said Geoff Beckwith, the associate director of the group.

Beckwith added that reducing or eliminating the impact fees “could be a disincentive for additional communities to accept cannabis establishments.”

Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association president David O’Brien praised the changes to the state’s cannabis laws included in the legislation.

“By providing start-up capital, empowering the [cannabis commission] with proper oversight of greedy municipalities, and allowing cannabis operators to deduct normal business expenses,” O’Brien said, “entrepreneurs now will be able to pursue their dreams of starting a small business with fewer barriers in their way.”

A conference committee must resolve differences between Senate and House versions of legislation before the legislation is made law. The final bill would be approved by both houses before being sent to Governor Charlie Baker.