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Federal Law Could Complicate The Path To Legalized Marijuana In Massachusetts

In this Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 photo a flash light is shown on a marijuana flower called "Golden Lemons" at the "Harvest Cup" trade show, in Worcester, Mass. The event commemorates one year of legal marijuana in Massachusetts.
Steven Senne/AP

In 2016, Massachusetts voters endorsed the legalization of recreational marijuana — the long-awaited rollout is scheduled for this summer. Yet a decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week to rescind an Obama-era federal policy could complicate the Commonwealth’s efforts to launch a recreational marijuana industry that would add millions of dollars to state coffers in yearly tax revenue.  

Unlike the Obama administration, Trump officials have signaled that local United States attorneys may use their discretion to enforce federal marijuana laws even in districts where marijuana is legal at the state level. And the chief prosecutor in the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said that state law does not protect people who cultivate and distribute marijuana in violation of federal law. 

Lelling did say that he would use his discretion to decide where to commit his office's resources, but he did not say that anyone involved in legitimate marijuana businesses is protected from federal law.

Daniel Medwed, Northeastern law professor and WGBH legal analyst, says that creating uncertainty around an industry that already struggles to obtain the traditional tools of business, including investment and bank services, could hamper the recreational marijuana trade in Massachusetts.

"Like any nascent, burgeoning industry, you need financial backing to be successful," he said. "And I can imagine a lot of investors don't like volatility, they don't like uncertainty. So if you're thinking about putting in a lot of money in a recreational pot shop, you might think there are less risky places to put your money."

The Cannabis Control Commission said the recent comments by Lelling will not affect how it crafts its final laws and regulations, which it has said would be finalized by March.

But already, some medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts are switching over to only accepting cash payments. Citing Lelling's statements, several medical dispensaries announced today that they will no longer accept debit card payments.


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