Ballot questions often face long and winding road to implementation

(Wesley Gibbs / Unsplash)

By Sophia Eppolito
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – Nearly two years after recreational marijuana was legalized in the commonwealth, experts are concerned that the rollout will be caught up in delays and red tape like medical marijuana, another voter-approved measure four years earlier.

When Massachusetts voters approved Question 4 in 2016, they established a Jan. 1, 2018 launch date for sales. That was pushed back by legislators to July 1. By mid-October, the Cannabis Control Commission created by the law had issued only six final licenses — two for retail, two for independent testing labs, a fifth for cultivation, and one for product manufacturing. And they still have several steps to take before they will be approved to open.

The fiscal 2019 budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker projected $63 million in marijuana-derived revenue for the year. Since missing the July 1 deadline, the state has missed out on a potential $20 million in revenue, according to Question 4 backers.

Will Luzier, the former campaign manager for the 2016 ballot campaign, said this slow-moving pace is eerily similar to when medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012. The medical statute said that there could not be more than 35 medical dispensaries open in the first year, but 2 ½ years later only five had opened, said Luzier.

“The concern — the fear if you will — is that this rollout will be as slow as or slower than the medical marijuana facility rollout,” Luzier said. “There’s been a record of glacial movement on marijuana commerce.”

To Luzier, the process was pushed back by multiple factors. One of the most significant was when the Legislature amended the voter-approved law passed an amendment that delayed all of the initiative’s dates by six months. The initiative went into effect Dec. 15, 2016, but wasn’t signed into law by Baker until the following July.

Jim Borghesani, the spokesman for the ballot campaign who now works with Luzier at a marijuana business consulting company, voiced similar concerns. He attributed the slow rollout to “slow-moving bureaucracy,” indifference from elected officials as well as municipal opposition from local cities and towns.

State Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, co-chair of the Legislature’s Marijuana Policy Committee, said the recreational rollout has been a much more transparent process than the medical one.

“A major difference between the rollout of the recreational marijuana industry and medical marijuana is that the Legislature, in creating the CCC, required the recreational process to be public,” Jehlen said in a statement. “We know what is causing delays because the commission is required to publicly disclose and discuss what’s going on at each step of the process. We didn’t have that with medical, and therefore we don’t really know what caused those delays.”

Medical marijuana currently falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health, while adult-use is being overseen by the recently-formed Cannabis Control Commission. There are now plans for the medical marijuana regulatory scheme to be subsumed by the Cannabis Control Commission by the end of this year.

Shaleen Title, who sits on the Cannabis Control Commission, said the recreational process is progressing the way that she “would have expected.”

“This is about what I would expect given how highly regulated the industry is in the original law and given just how much importance there is to making sure that it’s rolled out in a way that is compliant.”

Voters in Nevada and California also passed recreational marijuana laws in November 2016, but adult-use retail shops opened in Nevada in July 2017 and in California in January 2018.

As it now stands, there are 63 adult-use locations operating in the state of Nevada, along with 123 adult-use cultivators, 10 adult-use labs, and 87 manufacturers. Five of the state’s 17 counties have at least one retail shop. The use of medical marijuana became legal in Nevada in 2001, but at that point people had to grow their own. State licensed establishments were legalized in 2015.

“We had a really functional medical marijuana program in place with really solid regulations so we were able to build on that,” said Stephanie Klapstein, a public information officer for the Nevada Department of Taxation, which manages marijuana regulation. “I think that’s part of our success in being able to get up and running early.”

Title said it isn’t fair to compare Massachusetts to these other states because their markets are more widespread and they had several more medical marijuana businesses.

“I’ve been involved in that process in many other states and I would disagree that we’re further behind,” she said. “I think it’s an apples to oranges comparison.”

Borghesani said one major difference between Massachusetts’ legalization process is that the other states didn’t institute similar delays.

“First of all neither Nevada or California delayed things by six months like we did in Massachusetts,” Borghesani said. “None of them put forward a statutory delay … and the whole licensing application approval process has moved much slower in Massachusetts than it has in those states.”

Although there’s no hard deadline for when retail stores will open, Luzier said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if there are about three or four open by Thanksgiving.

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