Marijuana

THIS WEEK IN WEED

2019: The year of accountability for marijuana

FILE - In this July 12, 2018, file photo, newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in soilless media in pots at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass. The state of Michigan plans to allow medical marijuana patients and their doctors to complete registrations online. The change is scheduled to start by Oct. 8. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
Steven Senne/Associated Press/File
Newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in soilless media in pots at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford.

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One thing is for sure: This coming year will be a pivotal one in the history of marijuana in Massachusetts.

While 2018 saw five recreational stores open in the state, the cannabis industry will roll out for real and at scale in 2019. All those abstract discussions we’ve had about the hypothetical effects of state regulations, local decision-making, and industry dynamics will become concrete discussions about actual events and businesses.

For example, we’ll get to see whether people of color and communities disproportionately affected by prohibition really gain a foothold in the industry; whether stoned driving really increases; whether municipal restrictions are really such an impediment to the availability of retail cannabis; and so on.

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In other words, this will be a year of accountability. The public and the journalists who inform them must look at our laws, our regulations, our regulators, our public safety statistics, our businesses and ask: “is legalization delivering on its promises?”

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In that spirit, here are my predictions for 2019:

1. A lack of access to capital will continue to hobble equity efforts, thanks to a lack of political leadership; big operators will try to exploit the resulting vacuum.

The inability of marijuana firms to get loans from the bank like any other small business is by far the biggest reason that not a single certified minority-owned business has won a license from the Cannabis Control Commission so far.

The optics (and the reality) of Massachusetts’ practically all-white marijuana industry are getting uglier by the day, particularly in light of the racially disproportionate enforcement of drug laws over the decades.

Nonetheless, and despite the crystal-clear equity mandate in state law, top elected officials won’t see this as a particularly pressing problem — or at least, not their problem. At best, they’ll tell us, patronizingly, that it’s a complicated issue with no easy solutions (true) and throw up their hands (disappointing).

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Strong public support for legalization means that few politicians in Massachusetts these days are willing to be seen as obstructing its basic implementation — see, for example, Attorney General Maura Healey’s hasty clarification of her ruling on local moratoriums last summer.

But proactive leadership and vision? That’s harder to come by.

While some state legislators are willing to delve into the details of post-legalization pot policy, there’s an apparent consensus among more established and higher-ranking elected officials that it’s politically dangerous to “own” or even be associated with marijuana policy. Some seem to put more energy into finding ways to say “no” than into finding solutions.

Besides legalizing the drug, a close reading reveals that the fundamental purpose of the Massachusetts marijuana law is to protect “regular” folks from marijuana and the people who consume it. That’s also the fundamental attitude of most established politicians in this state. As a result, any talk about public funds being directed to disenfranchised cannabis entrepreneurs will be a nonstarter.

Bottom line: The most we can expect from officials who opposed all this in the first place is reluctant acceptance. And solving the admittedly difficult problem of funding and creating real equity in the marijuana industry will take a lot more than reluctant acceptance.

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A related prediction: Large, well-capitalized operators will try to exploit this vacuum, offering to help increasingly desperate regulators meet their equity mandate by funding businesses run by members of disenfranchised communities. Of course, that money will come with a lot of strings attached, including a loss of meaningful operational control and the ability to allocate the majority of the company’s profits. These big firms will pay lip-service to equity and diversity, and the franchise-like contracts they offer smaller players may even have some do-gooder clauses, but let’s not be naive: these aren’t charities, they’re sharks.

Will the state take up those big players on their offer? Regulations about the ownership of marijuana businesses mostly stand in the way, for now, but those can always be rewritten, or overridden with a new law.

I’m not confident enough to make a prediction about which way it will go, but I definitely expect big firms to lobby on this front.

As they do that, let’s not forget that the whole purpose of the state’s economic empowerment and equity efforts are to create wealth in those communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. The money is supposed to stay in those communities, to help repair them — to lift up those who, because of unfair, systemic inequities, face a much more difficult path to opening a marijuana business than the swaggering Wall Street bros now stampeding into the space with promises to “professionalize” marijuana (”It’s just like an Apple store!”).

2. The Massachusetts Legislature will pass a half-baked law aimed at preventing and policing stoned driving, prompting legal challenges.

Despite a lack of evidence that there is a big problem to solve in the first place — drunk driving is far more dangerous and far more prevalent — state lawmakers will pass a bill that “strengthens” our anti-stoned-driving laws.

The measure will include the questionable battery of subjective tests administered by police officers certified (by other police officers) as so-called “drug recognition experts,” despite the possibility of bias. The measure will probably also mandate an even-more-questionable biological test, which of course will tell us little to nothing about whether a driver was actually impaired at the time of arrest.

Civil rights groups such as the ACLU will lobby against the pending measure — to little avail, given the eagerness of politicians to appear that they are responding to this perceived but overstated crisis. That said, critics of the law might have better luck in the courts. Any judge who scratches at the surface of these tests will likely walk away unsatisfied and with more questions than answers.

While all this is going down, the same handful of restaurants and bars that perennially hover near the top of the state’s list of establishments that generate the most drunk drivers will remain open for business, and no one will care. We have become almost completely numb to the staggering societal costs of alcohol, and over-sensitized to the comparatively modest costs of marijuana.

3. Consolidation and acquisitions will continue

The first wave of medical marijuana operators to open in Massachusetts are already cashing out in droves. Their licenses are worth big bucks, after all. And with lots more money floating around on the Canadian public exchanges these days — and with increasing competition and the accompanying pressure to reduce costs — more and more “OG” operators will be looking to get out of the day-to-day grind of running a retail business.

4. There won’t be huge changes to federal law just yet

I’ll be honest: I’m not very confident in this prediction. The chances of significant federal reform seem better than ever before, with public support for legalization continuing to rise and even President Trump (sorta) promising to support a bill allowing states to set their own cannabis policies.

Still, a divided and distracted Congress will have bigger priorities than marijuana reform. (I’m guessing they might want to, you know, reopen the federal government first.) Also, for longtime elected skeptics of legalization, poll numbers aren’t immunization against accusations of flip-flopping. And many federal politicians demonstrate the same reluctance to engage on this issue that I described earlier among Massachusetts pols.

I predict that, at most, Congress will pass modest legislation making it easier to research cannabis or perhaps allowing veterans to access the drug for medical purposes. National decriminalization or legalization will have to wait for a new administration.

5. Advocacy will continue to become more industry-oriented and -funded

The movement that brought you legalization is changing in multiple ways.

For one thing, the fight is shifting from the voting booth to the State House, as activists target states whose constitutions don’t allow citizens to put legally-binding petitions on the ballot. The grassroots still matter, but lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill is a completely different game from convincing a majority of voters to check “yes.”

Contributions from wealthy, principled individuals will start to be eclipsed by donations from big marijuana companies and industry groups. And in return, those companies will expect laws that benefit them.

In a parallel shift, expect a fade in the importance of old-line advocacy groups like NORML, whose tactics often amounted to throwing stones at the once-immovable wall of prohibition. The cathartic disruption and agitation by the pro-pot diehards of yesteryear will be replaced by more strategic and industry-oriented groups such as the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, which is lobbying for regulations that are friendly to small businesses and consumers while also training would-be entrepreneurs and workers on how to thrive within the legal cannabis business.

6. Municipalities will spend the money they get from marijuana businesses on whatever they feel like; everyone will gnash their teeth, but nothing will change

Technically, all the money that cities and towns extract from marijuana operators is supposed to go toward offsetting the costs those cannabis facilities impose on the community. (Some of you are already laughing.)

However, most of the contracts I’ve seen stipulate that the municipality can spend that cash on whatever it pleases, and I have no doubt most will hold true to their word in that regard. (Some, such as Salem, have already directed large sums to charities that have nothing whatsoever to do with cannabis .) The Globe and other outlets will write accountability stories pointing out that municipalities are actually directing the profits elsewhere, and that they haven’t documented many or any real costs. The public will roll its collective eyes, but local leaders won’t be held to account.

At best, a state-level oversight agency will issue some scolding guidance.

7. Delivery and social consumption businesses will be the topic of much conversation, but few, if any, will open

The commission will chip away at writing regulations for marijuana delivery services and social consumption lounges (pot cafes). But the wariness of local officials and potential legal issues (in particular around social consumption, which under the current law requires a municipal-level opt-in vote) will sharply limit the scope of any rollout.

Maybe in 2020 we’ll finally get a robust, regulated delivery and social consumption market. In the meantime, illicit and gray-market operators will continue to thrive and operate more or less openly.

8. The Cannabis Control Commission will (belatedly) ease fees on medical marijuana patients and make registration easier.

Let’s finish with a slightly more specific prediction: medical marijuana patient advocates will finally succeed in their long-running quest to make it easier and cheaper to get a state-issued card that grants them access to medical-only dispensaries, and exempts them from taxes and long lines at hybrid medical-recreational shops.

This is an easy and relatively non-controversial win for the commission, and there’s plenty of money in the state’s marijuana regulation fund to absorb the resulting loss of revenue.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.