How Mass politicians say ‘local control’ when they mean ‘prohibition’
When Question 4 passed in November, anti-prohibitionists celebrated—but it’s become clear that the fight to end marijuana prohibition in Massachusetts is far from over. While the right to consume cannabis products seems relatively secure, many communities could be denied access to retail availability if lawmakers enact a “local control” proposal by state Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester.
Under Question 4, a city or town government must allow retail marijuana shops to open unless the voters of the community pass a referendum banning them, as people in Westborough did earlier this month. However, Lewis’s bill would take the power away from voters and hand it over to politicians. The only requirement would be that the city or town hold at least one public hearing before banning retail establishments.
The bill would also allow local governments to put more strict limits on the number of retail shops that can open (this as the Massachusetts Package Store Association’s board of directors voted last week to support members that wish to sell legal cannabis). Under Question 4, retail shops cannot be limited to fewer than 20 percent of the number of liquor store licenses or to fewer than the number of medical marijuana dispensaries. But the bill would remove that language from the law, allowing local governments to restrict the number of shops even further.
Lewis, who did not respond to requests for comment, opposed Question 4 and has proposed a number of bills to water it down. His bills, along with numerous others, will be reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, which formed in February. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he hopes the committee will have a comprehensive bill for him to review by May. Lewis is the committee’s Senate vice-chair and will no doubt push for his “local control” proposal to be included in the final bill.
Lewis has an ally in the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a lobby group that represents and receives tax dollars from all 351 municipal governments in the state. Late last year, the MMA wrote a letter to state leaders urging expanded “local control” and called on local officials to contact their state legislators to “fix flaws” in the new law. Among other claims made by the MMA:
Cities and towns have a responsibility to ensure that the new law is implemented locally in a manner that protects the public interest, including addressing public health and public safety concerns, and ensuring that the roll-out does not negatively impact residents, other businesses, neighborhoods, economic development plans, or other important considerations. As such, municipal officials are scrambling to get information and plan their own policy responses. This will be very difficult in the short term, as there are many unanswered questions and many significant flaws in the new law.
Geoffrey Beckwith, the MMA’s executive director, says he would prefer for the decision to allow marijuana sales to be up to local officials, comparing it to decisions over alcohol sales, business licensing, and zoning. He says residents can influence their town meeting or city council, so holding referenda is unnecessary. He also worries that the marijuana industry will spend money to influence voters.
According to Beckwith: “There are probably a lot of situations where folks voted for [Question 4] but didn’t envision that there would be a commercial marijuana sales operation in their community … They [might] think that they would drive into a large city nearby to potentially purchase, but not think that there would be a commercial marijuana operation or a cannabis cafe in their community.”
Yes on 4, the group behind the marijuana legalization ballot question, is against the “local control” bill, according to spokesman Jim Borghesani. “We are adamantly opposed to this bill because it will create a new Prohibition, and it would undo the very foundation of what voters decided last November,” he says.
Borghesani, whose group held a press conference on Beacon Hill on Monday to set its terms prior to the first hearing of the legislature’s cannabis committee, adds: “We gave local officials considerable control. They can determine where marijuana establishments are located, they can determine the operating hours, they can help determine the signage, and they, on their own, can limit marijuana establishments to 20 percent of existing liquor store licenses in the town … But they should not have the power to ban establishments altogether. We left that to voters, and that’s the way it should remain.”
His conclusion: “The people supporting this bill are prohibitionists. Their goal is not really local control, their goal is prohibition—and people made their voices heard in November to end prohibition.”