Mass. towns debate new pot sales rules

 In Legalization

The Boston Globe / By Dan Adams / JULY 19, 2017

Massachusetts lawmakers are defending their new system for giving municipalities control over recreational marijuana businesses, following criticism from legal experts that it could be ripe for court challenges and from pot advocates who fret it will leave the drug unavailable in large swaths of the state.

Under Question 4, the marijuana ballot measure approved by voters last November, local officials could not ban or sharply limit licensed pot facilities in their cities and towns without first holding a community-wide referendum. But under a package of changes voted on by the House and Senate Wednesday, elected leaders of towns where voters rejected Question 4 will now be able to impose those tight restrictions on their own.

Several legal specialists said establishing different processes for different municipalities may violate the Massachusetts Constitution’s “equal protection” clause, putting any decisions made under the new law at legal risk. Pot industry advocates warned that the specter of litigation, combined with greater powers some municipal officials now have, could encourage marijuana shops to avoid cities and towns where voters did not support the ballot question.

That in turn could leave the newly legal drug unavailable in large sections of the state, as many neighboring communities rejected Question 4, together forming large pot-unfriendly regions on Cape Cod, the South Shore, and in Northeast Massachusetts.

State Senator Patricia Jehlen and State Representative Mark Cusack, two of the six legislators who drafted the bill, insisted the system was legal.

“Our lawyers have assured us repeatedly that this is constitutional,” Cusack said. “It’s not an arbitrary standard. It’s based off a vote of the people.”

Cusack said officials in cities and towns whose residents rejected Question 4 could still hold a community referendum if they wanted. He also cited as precedent the 2013 vote on whether to approve a casino at Suffolk Downs that was held just among residents of East Boston, not those of the whole city.

The extent of local officials’ power to block proposed marijuana facilities will be critical in determining pot’s availability to consumers. Already, more than 100 of the state’s 351 cities and towns have imposed moratoriums or bans on licensed pot operations.

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