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How Activists Turned a Bad Massachusetts Bill Into a Great Law

July 24, 2017
(Pgiam/iStock)

Op-Ed: Boston-based attorney Shaleen Title is a longtime drug reform advocate and co-founder of the THC Staffing Group. In 2016, she was a co-author of Question 4, the Massachusetts adult-use legalization measure.

Just weeks ago, the fate of cannabis in Massachusetts was completely uncertain.

After voters passed Question 4—adult-use legalization—last November, legislators in Boston took it upon themselves to rewrite the entire regulatory framework.

Legislators nearly sunk the state's legalization law. Activists helped save it—and kept the industry open to all.

The House passed a bill that undid Question 4, replacing it with a framework that excluded entire populations using broad, vague terms. Diversity provisions were completely absent from that initial bill. The new language would have barred anyone who had interacted with the criminal justice system—as well as their “associates” and “antecedents”—from working in the cannabis industry.

The upshot: If you wanted to start a cannabis business but your cousin once cheated on his taxes, state authorities could deny you the license.

This Is How You Change the Law

A lot of things had to happen quickly to turn the bill around.

After the bill was published, pressure mounted quickly from activist groups that had been watching the process closely. On the morning the bill was scheduled to come up for debate, I joined activists from Equitable Opportunities Now and the Minority Cannabis Business Association to hold a press conference with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus (MBLC) to highlight questions of fairness, equity, and entry barriers.

With the help of elected officials like Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, we were able to remind state legislators that equity matters to voters. Members of the MBLC and their staff used the recommendations report issued by the Boston City Council, as well as the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s model bill, to help develop its amendments focused on racial equity.

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Rep. Dave Rogers was able to get seven amendments, an unusually high number, into the final version of the House bill, including restoring protections for parents who legally use cannabis. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Sen. Linda Forry went even further in the Senate bill, with priority review for applicants who demonstrate experience with economic empowerment for communities. 

Meanwhile, our coalition used the network we had built over the previous several months to encourage people to call their representatives and senators to demand that no one with a marijuana conviction be excluded.

Our strategy was not just to call the six conference committee members negotiating the bill, but also to call our own representatives and senators and ask them to write or call their colleagues on the conference committee and pass on the message that their constituents felt strongly about the equity elements of the bill. We kept calling every day until the staffers told us that action was being taken.

Those actions are reflected in the compromise legislation that now sits on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

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The New, Better Version

Here’s what’s new and improved in Massachusetts’ cannabis framework (assuming Gov. Baker signs the bill):

  • No one will be disqualified from owning or working in a cannabis business due to a past marijuana-related offense, unless it involved distribution to a minor.
  • Massachusetts residents with a marijuana possession charge in their past will be eligible to have their records sealed.
  • A public awareness campaign will make people aware of the opportunity to seal past marijuana possession charges.
  • Funds from tax revenues, licensing fees and application fees will go toward programs focused on restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development and services for economically disadvantaged people in communities hit the hardest by the war on drugs.

Securing these provisions was a major victory. We cannot undo the harm caused by the war on drugs unless the people who were fined, arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses are allowed to join in the economic boon of legalization.

Sealing past marijuana charges will help reduce the ripple effects from the war on drugs, because the previously incarcerated frequently have trouble finding work due to their criminal record. This provision makes it easier for these people to receive a fresh start.

Dedicating funds from state cannabis-related revenues toward programs focused on restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development and services was also important. After decades of incarceration practices that had a deeply destructive impact on communities of color, it is incredibly refreshing to have legislators who don’t just create laws geared toward change, but back it up with funding for initiatives that start to heal the damage.

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More Improvements to Come

While much has been defined, there are still plenty more details to be ironed out in Massachusetts’ adult-use cannabis system, and this will fall to the five-member Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) and a 25-member advisory board. Under the new legislation, the CCC will include a member with a background in legal, policy or social justice issues in a regulated industry. The advisory board will include experts in minority business development and ownership, social justice, and economic development strategies for under-resourced communities, the mitigation of the harms of the drug war. It will also include the executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU.

There is one more major set of provisions in the compromise legislation, and these relate to data collection. There is an implicit acknowledgment that this legislation and what the CCC comes up with might not answer every issue in the marijuana industry. By studying this new field of business as it evolves, the CCC can take future steps to create a diverse marijuana industry in our state.

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The CCC will collect data on the total number of cannabis retailers and how many are owned by women, minorities and veterans. If the commission finds barriers to entry for any of these groups, it will adopt diversity licensing goals to spur substantial and meaningful participation in the industry by these groups. The inclusion of this and other diversity measures in the bill is the culmination of powerful advocacy done by a broad coalition.

The result: The Massachusetts adult-use program averted disaster, and is now arguably the most progressive legalization framework in the country.

As more states look to legalize, they can look to Massachusetts as a model of social and racial justice in legalization. There is much more work ahead as we begin the implementation phase; follow Equitable Opportunities Now to join the movement.

Shaleen Title's Bio Image

Shaleen Title

THC Staffing Group co-founder Shaleen Title is a Boston-based attorney specializing in cannabis regulations and hiring practices.

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  • mf2112

    They screwed up with the tax rate though, ensuring the black market will continue. Greedy bastards.

  • Marty Neilson

    How do you not mention the value of investing tax revenues in substance abuse prevention (especially for minors), intervention, and treatment? How can you and our legislators be so nearsighted on this issue? Social justice is incredibly important. Why can’t we hold positive and healthy youth development in the same conversation? Especially when youth marijuana use rates in Mass are already some of the highest in the country, pre-legalization. Very disappointing. And if you think it will be harder for young people to gain access to marijuana because of a clerk asking for an ID, just refer to our experience with alcohol. Alcohol is still the most used illicit substance for youth and has been “regulated” and “illegal” for minors for 80+ years. FYI, the black market will never go away. Ever. There is still a $205 million tobacco black market thriving in the U.S. every year. The higher the tax rate, the more revenue can be made to regulate the industry and protect us from the harms of the industry. Our legislators caved to the marijuana lobby’s pressures to drop the tax rate so marijuana business can make more money. Plain and simple. Informed in NO WAY by sound public policy, public health, and public safety. If you don’t like the tax rate, grow your own weed. It’s a “weed”. And shame on Leafly for illegally advertising in Massachusetts. The laws are in place to protect residents of the commonwealth from predatory companies JUST like you. Please operate responsibly. We’d all be better of for it.

    • Gễrắld Ẵzểnảrở

      Your scattershot rant makes very little sense, but it does look like it would have been cathartic for someone on the losing side of this issue.

      Do you feel better now?

    • I’m not going to re-enact the whole campaign with you, since the election’s over, but FYI there are indeed funds directed to evidence-based substance use prevention and treatment and substance use early intervention services. You can find the details on page 38 of the bill.

    • John Hilger

      Deliberately avoiding learning new things is not the same as a reasonable opinion, turn off Fox and Friends, get an education, and in the immortal words of Don Henley, get over it.

    • F Michael Addams

      …wrong on all counts…very consistent , if uninformed..

    • Starmaykr

      Yes, Mr. Neilson you appear to be wrong on just about all accounts. Shaleen has already citeded page 38 of the bill relating to prevention, early intervention and treatment. “Pre-legalization” “Mass marijuana youth rates some of the highest in the country”?!? Your statement here implies legalization has helped to contain this high rate of youth use. You are correct on the next point; Alcohol remains the most harmful and often used illicit substance for all who use it, for both adults and minors. As to your point about the “Black Markets”? I myself would just like to point out how we might have these underground markets in tobacco,prescription drugs, opioids,guns,blood diamonds etc. but do you notice how we do not have much of a Black market in Cuban Cigars??? It is obvious,if our society decides it really wants to stop something it can and will do it. Just try to cop a Cuban Cigar. With a lower tax rate the government will be able collect more taxes in the long run, by volume, as the industry inevitably grows. I do call out Shaleen on this one issue. The vote on the ballot initiative carried only a 12% tax! Their is no way you can call this revision a “Great Law” when it flies right in the face of the will of the people. We the people who voted for 12% know better than the behind closed doors politicians who illegally raised it to 20%! Twenty percent brings back the black market criminals and drives away revenues from people who might cross State lines to buy here in Mass. Sound Public Policy is to implement the will of the voters, the will of the voters is 12%! As for that shot at Leafly? We in Mass have only just written the advertising laws you reference but maybe you could cite whatever the hell you are taking about? When and were did leafy do anything like what you say? Did you write them to complain at the time?

  • Rob Woodside

    Didn’t the Reefer Madness crew ban the smoking of marijuana contrary to the Massachusetts plebicite? What happened to that gem of legislation?

  • familyguy

    If Mass continues with their current politicians, there may never be legal cannabis in that state. Delaying the will of the majority for over 18 month is baloney. Conservatives love to be controlled by the government because they can’t control themselves and feel everyone needs to be controlled by the government. Trump, Sessions, Kushner, Madifort are all communist and want full control of every person in the US. We liberal want you to make your own decisions and the government to stay off our back. Conservatives will enslave themselves given the opportunity and right now they have plenty of it.