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Cannabis commission to revisit regulations around equity, host agreements in Massachusetts

Marijuana plants.
Jesse Costa
Marijuana plants.

Five years since its creation and now made up entirely of a second wave of commissioners, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and the legal marijuana sector that it oversees are at a critical crossroads. Regulators are now gearing up for a rulemaking round that one commissioner said could "make or break" the industry in the state.

The first five years of non-medical cannabis regulation in Massachusetts revealed a handful of problems — the industry is not nearly as diverse and equitable as intended, and cities and towns have taken advantage of the leverage they can hold over marijuana businesses. But a new law aims to rein in some of the hiccups in the maturing industry and the commission is expected to soon dive into the nitty-gritty of its regulations, a process that is sure to come with many weighty decisions for regulators.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo said last week that she expects the commission to reopen its regulations for additions, subtractions and revisions sometime "later this year (or) the beginning of next year."

"We also know there's a lot at stake. We know the new law is at stake. The timeframe, the crucial policy discussions that need to take place and that can really make or break the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, particularly an industry that has so many wrongs to right," Camargo said during a commission meeting last week.

After the House and Senate reached a last-minute agreement, Gov. Charlie Baker last month signed a new law that aims to foster greater diversity in the legal marijuana industry, gives the commission real oversight of the host community agreements that marijuana businesses are required to enter into with municipalities, and smooths the path for cities and towns to green light on-site cannabis consumption establishments within their borders. Many of the law's provisions were commission priorities that present and former commissioners lobbied for both publicly and directly to lawmakers.

But it will be a newcomer in the role of commission chairperson as the group sets out to implement the law and revise its detailed rules for the industry. Former state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien was sworn in as the commission chair on Sept. 1, having been appointed by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. O'Brien follows interim Chair Sarah Kim and inaugural Chair Steven Hoffman, who resigned in April. Hoffman was the last of the commission's original members to leave his post.

"You're probably aware of this, that you're joining the commission at a pivotal time," Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion told O'Brien last week at the outset of her first public meeting as chair.

Commissioner Kimberly Roy similarly remarked upon the changed nature of the commission and its work.

"With the new cannabis legislation signed into law, we're now entering a new phase at the commission and I'm very excited to work with Chair O'Brien and my fellow commissioners, CCC staff and the stakeholders as we begin the incredibly important process and work surrounding this new round of regulatory review and drafting," she said.

Concepcion said the commission has made "some incredible strides within the last year alone, particularly around fulfilling our equity mandate and addressing the deep scars left by the War on Drugs." But, she said, plenty more work remains.

"In recognition of our five-year anniversary, I was recently asked about some of the initiatives that I hope to accomplish in the remaining years of my own tenure here," Concepcion said. "And what I referenced was implementing the new law, particularly around suitability for people who have past criminal records, for people who are trying to enter into the industry or having issues with accessing it, and increasing public awareness around those access and opportunity points."

When the CCC's fifth anniversary rolled around Sept. 1, the legal cannabis industry in Massachusetts included 434 recreational and 98 medical licensees, together employing more than 30,000 registered agents across the state.

But despite Massachusetts being the first state in the country to mandate that equity and inclusion be part of its legal cannabis framework, the legal marijuana industry has not lived up to that aspiration so far. Of the 346 marijuana businesses that had started operations as of the start of this year, just 20 (less than 6 percent) were led by economic empowerment entrepreneurs or were connected to participants in the CCC's social equity program, Cannabis Policy Committee co-chair Rep. Dan Donahue, D- Worcester, said in May.

"While the law was intended to create new economic opportunities for diverse communities and those previously harmed by harsh drug laws, this promise has not been fully achieved, leaving many aspiring equity entrepreneurs with a very challenging pathway to achieve the success that larger corporate interests have enjoyed," O'Brien said in a statement. "I am eager to get to work implementing some of the positive changes written into the recent reform law passed by the Legislature, including new access to capital for entrepreneurs, on site consumption, and enhanced oversight of Host Community Agreements."

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