GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed joined GBH’s Morning Edition today for "Deep in the Weeds,” where he discusses legal issues related to the ongoing marijuana rollout with in Massachusetts. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Joe Mathieu: Daniel, let’s start with the recent criminal conviction of disgraced former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who among other things, was convicted of extorting prospective marijuana business owners in his city. How did those alleged shakedowns work?
Daniel Medwed: Correia was charged and convicted of basically demanding cash, often through an intermediary, in return for issuing what’s called a “non-opposition letter” from City Hall. Those letters are essentially required in order for businesses and municipalities to enter a “host community agreement,” and that agreement in turn is required for someone to set up shop within city limits. Massachusetts law gives a tremendous amount of local control in terms of whether a particular city or town wants to welcome the marijuana industry, and arguably that process is open to potential abuse, as we saw with Correia.
Mathieu: I imagine that Correia’s behavior is an extreme example of how the process might be abused. Is that case an aberration or is it the tip of the iceberg?
Medwed: It’s certainly an egregious example of how one local leader took advantage of the rules to line his own pockets, and I’m not aware of any comparably blatant misconduct. But the rules do allow for municipalities, if not politicians themselves, to extract all sorts of concessions in exchange for a host community agreement. For instance, a study of 460 host community agreements conducted by the Cannabis Business Association and UMass Boston earlier this month found that municipalities collectively received nearly $2.5 million above the legal limits for these agreements, often through local charity donations or reimbursements.
On the one hand, many of these concessions are designed to help the communities — a business asked to contribute $5,000 to an American Legion Hall in one instance, and that’s very different from Correia. These officials seem to be helping their towns, not themselves. On the other hand, the effect seems to be that it’s a hard for smaller players to break into the industry — that you have to be somewhat well-heeled to gain entrée — and that seems to aggravate some of the longstanding concerns about equity and, in particular, ensuring that communities of color have a seat at the table.
WATCH: Daniel Medwed on the legality of marijuana social clubs in Mass.
Mathieu: Daniel, Massachusetts has authorized a number of delivery services for adult-use cannabis, but something we haven’t seen yet are long-anticipated marijuana social clubs. What’s the legal status of pot cafes?
Medwed: Well, we’re a far cry from becoming Amsterdam any time soon. So, here’s the overview: Back in 2019 the Cannabis Control Commission in theory took some steps toward authorizing a pilot program for so-called public “social consumption sites,” but the governor and legislature have been less than enthusiastic. Just this past March, State Senator Julian Cyr of the Cape and Islands proposed legislation to convert that theory into reality through a law that would allow towns to decide for themselves — either through a voter initiative petition or a local ordinance — whether to set up these cafes. In the press, he analogized the current situation to having liquor stores but no bars, and argued that people need a place to go to consume legal marijuana, otherwise there might be outdoor consumption, and related disruptions to quality of life without them.
Mathieu: What’s the current status of the bill?
Medwed: The senate referred it to the Committee on Cannabis Policy, so it’s on the backburner for the time being. It might very well go up in smoke.