Weld parts with Baker on pot sales

End the economic death sentence on recreational sellers

MASSACHUSETTS RECENTLY concluded that while adult-use cannabis dispensaries should be closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, medical cannabis dispensaries can stay open. There are a number of reasons, some relating to public health and some relating to social justice or economic harm, why the Commonwealth might wish to reconsider this distinction between the two types of cannabis stores.

First, the same product is sold in both types of store, and both are perfectly legal, having been approved by Massachusetts voters in 2016.

Second, one purpose of the 2016 law, duly implemented by the Cannabis Control Commission, was to ensure that small business entrepreneurs, particularly from communities adversely affected by past cannabis policies, can profit from its legalization.

This has been widely—and correctly—viewed as a matter of social equity and economic justice. Many such entrepreneurs borrowed money and risked all they had to open in the adult use market, which is just now starting to bear fruit. They could be wiped out if they are forced to remain closed — the exact opposite of what the law, and the cannabis commission, intended.

Of the 11 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized adult-use cannabis, only Massachusetts has imposed this economic death sentence on small and previously disadvantaged business owners. In the other states, three let storefronts remain open, two are permitting deliveries, four are allowing both open storefronts and deliveries, and two have not yet launched recreational programs.

Third, adult-use cannabis is central to the health and wellness of many Bay Staters. The 60,000 cannabis patients registered with the state’s medical program make up only a small portion of the Massachusetts residents who rely on cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) to treat and manage a variety of illnesses and conditions.

Consider, for example, the more than 300,000 Massachusetts military veterans, many of whom struggle with debilitating post-war conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is widely treated and managed with cannabis. Yet these veterans cannot register to officially – and legally — become medical cannabis users, because doing so puts them at risk of losing VA benefits. Adult-use cannabis is therefore their only legal option.

This is not a trivial problem. Up to 20 military veterans commit suicide every day in the United States—almost one suicide every hour of every day. We owe our veterans more.

Without access to adult-use cannabis, suffering individuals have two options. They can return to their treating physicians, who are likely to prescribe opioid-based painkillers to treat chronic pain, an illness common among military veterans. Opioid medications are particularly dangerous for veterans, who are twice as likely as civilians to die from accidental opioid overdoses.

Alternatively, veterans or others denied access to the adult-use market may feel it necessary to seek cannabis from the illicit market, where products can be laced with dangerous and potentially lethal additives such as fentanyl—again, a practice that the 2016 law was specifically designed to prevent.

Then there is the economic angle. State sales by licensed cannabis retailers topped $157 million between January 2020 and when the dispensaries were shuttered. With unemployment now at record levels, allowing adult-use stores to operate will preserve jobs for people who need them desperately, and generate economic activity and tax revenues at a time when both are sorely needed by the Commonwealth and its citizens.

This can be done at no risk to public health. If the concern is that residents of other states might travel to Massachusetts in droves to patronize adult-use stores, flouting social distancing rules, then restrict how many customers can go inside at once – just as many grocery stores are doing.

It is also possible to restrict adult-use sales to Massachusetts residents only. Given the state’s inherent “police power” to protect the public health and economic well-being of its citizens, it is highly unlikely such a decision could be successfully challenged in court.

Meet the Author

William Weld

Principal, ML Strategies
If it were, many months in the future and possibly after the COVID crisis had passed, the state, if it wished, could simply reinstate the order for the adult use stores to close during the pandemic. There would have been no net harm to anyone’s interests, and quite a lot of economic benefit and social justice would have been achieved, in the interim.

Bill Weld is a former governor of Massachusetts. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.