The Legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg continue to play a game of cat-and-mouse when it comes to marijuana regulation.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot law legalizing possession and use of marijuana, and authorizing a retail pot industry. But 184 days later, the question of who will be in charge over overseeing the marijuana industry remains up in the air.
In December, the Legislature and Baker delayed implementation of that law by six months, passing a statute that left Goldberg in charge of regulation while pushing back from March 1 to Sept. 1 the deadline for her appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission created under the ballot law.
In January, Baker said any changes to the regulatory framework for legal cannabis should be made by April to ensure the delayed deadlines can be met.
Since then, the Legislature has formed a Committee on Marijuana Policy, which has held numerous public hearings with the goal of developing legislation significantly altering the ballot law by June. Lawmakers say they still intend to facilitate the issuance of the first retail licenses in July 2018.
Meantime, there’s no regulatory structure in place. Goldberg says her office spent months preparing to implement the law and lawmakers approved $300,000 in regulatory funding for Goldberg. Baker signed off on that appropriation in March, but his office has not released the money.
A Baker administration official declined to say why the money has been held up for the past six weeks.
“The Executive Office for Administration and Finance will carefully administer the reserve funds and work with all parties involved to ensure the law is implemented responsibly,” Sarah Finlaw, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, said in a statement.
But it appears Baker’s team may be adhering to the wishes of the Legislature.
In an April 3 letter, a week after passing the bill authorizing the $300,000 appropriation, House Marijuana Committee co-chair Rep. Mark Cusack asked Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore to hold on to the $300,000 and said lawmakers hope to get a marijuana law rewrite to Baker by July 1.
“Arguably the biggest recommendation made by the committee will be the structure of the recreational marijuana regulatory authority and how it operates,” Cusack wrote. He said lawmakers are weighing having the treasurer as the sole regulatory authority or opting instead for an independent commission.
Public officials have spent the past few months debating the commission model and do not appear to have reached a consensus.
Goldberg, Baker and legislative leaders discussed regulatory governance models at a private meeting last week. Afterward, Goldberg called the meeting “a great first conversation” and said the discussion covered “a lot of the technical aspects.”
“I think this was just a first conversation, and there’s a recognition that we will all be working collaboratively, and with the members of the committee because they have done a significant amount of work to try and figure out how to meet the needs of and the will of the people of Massachusetts and the way in which they voted,” Goldberg said.
State tax collections 10 months into fiscal 2017 are up by just 1.1 percent, contributing to ongoing state budget problems.
Back in December, when the Legislature passed the law delaying the ballot law’s implementation by six months, one marijuana advocate said she was bothered that marijuana-related jobs and tax revenues would be delayed.
“Massachusetts does not have coffers of extra money to let this type of delay happen,” said Beth Waterfall, the founder of Massachusetts Mothers for Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana. “We need jobs in Massachusetts.”
If lawmakers can get a bill to Baker by July, Cusack said, that would leave a year to write regulations governing the new market.
“While some may be worried about such timelines, getting the regulatory structure right is and will continue to be more important,” Cusack wrote.
Under existing law, if regulations governing retail sales are not promulgated by July 1, 2018, licensed medical marijuana companies would automatically be become eligible to sell marijuana to anyone 21 or older.
So while the exact makeup of the regulatory structure is still unknown, state officials for now have decided it’s inadvisable to release the $300,000 to Goldberg so she can staff up in the spirit of the ballot law.