How Activists Turned a Bad Massachusetts Bill Into a Great Law

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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.