House jumps back into pot policy

Bill makes clear the cap on ‘community impact fees’

It’s been five months since House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was unaware of any legislation filed by the Cannabis Control Commission seeking to change state laws around agreements between marijuana companies and their host communities.

A month before that, a legislative committee (with DeLeo-appointed co-chair Rep. David Rogers) held a public hearing on a bill that would let the Cannabis Control Commission regulate host community agreements – a policy the CCC publicly voted in favor of in January 2019. But DeLeo’s comments, which Senate President Karen Spilka agreed with at the time, illustrated the lack of interest lawmakers had in making further tweaks to the state’s marijuana laws.

DeLeo is unaware no longer.

On Wednesday, the full House will take up a bill that would clarify the rules around host community agreements, which are pacts marijuana businesses must sign with their host municipality as a condition of state licensure. This would be the first significant marijuana-related bill the Legislature will vote on since its July 2017 overhaul of the 2016 ballot question.

Today, state law caps the “community impact fees” that communities can charge companies at 3 percent of sales. But many agreements either blatantly ignore that cap or require other payments, such as mandatory charitable donations. The Cannabis Control Commission, which oversees the marijuana industry, has said it does not believe it has authority under current law to review or order revisions to host community agreements. (One commission member, Shaleen Title, has abstained on most license votes, however, as a “symbolic gesture” of protest against agreements that exceed the 3 percent limit.)

Budding entrepreneurs say the cost of host community agreements makes it harder for mom-and-pop shops, which don’t have the backing and financing of multi-state marijuana conglomerates, to compete with Big Pot when it comes to negotiating with cities and towns.

Meanwhile, US Attorney Andrew Lelling has convened a grand jury to investigate host community agreements. No charges have yet stemmed from that investigation, which opened after the feds arrested then-Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia on charges of taking bribes in exchange for municipal approvals of marijuana companies.

The version of the bill reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee Monday night makes explicit that the cap on community impact fees includes “monetary payments, in-kind contributions and charitable contributions.” It continues a requirement that community impact fees be reasonably related to the costs imposed on municipalities by the marijuana business, but for the first time communities would have to document those costs.

The Cannabis Control Commission would receive authority to “review, regulate and enforce” host community agreements.

When the bill was reported out of the Cannabis Policy Committee in late January, committee chair Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz said the bill “seeks to put more explicit guard rails on the development of [host community agreements], to restore balance to the market and enable entrepreneurs who don’t have $1 million in starting capital to still have a chance at competing.”

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The State House News Service reported that the Marijuana Policy Project, which was behind the marijuana legalization ballot question, had been asking members to call lawmakers and urge them to take up the bill. Marijuana Policy Project New England political director Matt Simon wrote in an email that the host community agreement requirement “has created significant problems, especially for smaller businesses.”

Now that lawmakers appear willing to dip a toe into pot policy, one wonders what comes next. Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill to crack down on marijuana-impaired drivers, perhaps?