Massachusetts lawmakers debate pot regulators’ independence

BOSTON (AP) — Recreational marijuana may be legal for adults in Massachusetts but who ultimately will be in charge of regulating and enforcing the new law remains the subject of behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Beacon Hill.

A legislative committee created to review and potentially make revisions in the voter-approved measure plans to hold its final hearing at the Statehouse on Monday and deliver recommendations by June.

Emerging as a key point in the discussions is the yet-to-be-formed Cannabis Control Commission, which will be responsible for granting licenses to retail marijuana stores.

At issue is whether to keep the commission under the supervision of the state treasurer or make it a more independent body modeled after the panel that oversees casino gambling in Massachusetts.

A closer look at the tug of war over pot regulation:

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WHAT THE VOTERS APPROVED

The November ballot question laid out a detailed regulatory structure led by a three-member Cannabis Control Commission that would be appointed by the state treasurer, currently Deb Goldberg, a Democrat in her first term in the elected position.

Why the treasurer?

The framers of the recreational marijuana question sought a regulatory process similar to the one already in place for alcohol in Massachusetts. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, within the treasurer’s office, is responsible for granting liquor licenses and enforcing laws, including the prohibition on liquor sales to minors.

Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the group that led the pot legalization drive, said the alcohol and nascent marijuana industries are analogous.

“We frankly see that as the most efficient and most effective regulatory structure,” he said.

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INDEPENDENCE QUESTIONED

Suggestions for changing the makeup of the Cannabis Control Commission revolve around concerns that it could become politicized in the future, with two much power centralized in the appointees of one elected official.

The alternative most often put forth is to pattern the commission after the five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission that was created by a 2011 law that authorized casino gambling in the state.

The chair of the gambling commission is chosen by the governor and the attorney general and treasurer each have one appointment. The remaining two members are selected in concert by the governor, attorney general and treasurer. The gambling commission is not under direct control of any single elected official or government department, allowing it to operate — for the most part — independently.

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DIFFERENCES OF OPINION

Goldberg, who opposed the ballot question to legalize marijuana, has made few public comments on the issue but in recent testimony before the Legislature’s marijuana policy committee made clear her preference for keeping the commission within her office.

She noted that her staff already had spent considerable time studying the issues around marijuana regulation in preparation for appointing the commissioners, including travel to other states where recreational marijuana was previously legalized.

“After engaging with many different experts and stakeholders, we have a strong sense of what will work and what won’t,” said Goldberg, also suggesting that changes at this point could further delay opening of pot shops in Massachusetts — already pushed back to mid-2018.

Keeping cannabis regulators answerable to the treasurer could help avoid more unnecessary delays, Borghesani said.

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WHY IT MATTERS

The debate over marijuana regulation may strike some Massachusetts residents as little more than political wrangling over arcane bureaucratic processes.

But decisions made by the cannabis commissioners will have wide impact on people who use recreational pot and even many who don’t.

In addition to licensing and determining where pot shops will go, the commission also will establish security requirements for retail stores; health and safety standards for cultivation, manufacture and distribution of marijuana products; and testing and packaging requirements.

It also will be tasked with annually reviewing and recommending any changes to tax rates on marijuana sales.

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