It's a common refrain when legal, recreational, or even medical marijuana is coming online in any state or municipality. "Money and business are going to take over everything." In Massachusetts, that reality is playing out in the state's biggest city and capital of Boston, as residents statewide consider a voter initiative to "regulate marijuana like alcohol" that will appear on their ballot in November.
In the Boston City Council, members recently debated a proposed amendment to keep medical cannabis facilities - or future retail stores if marijuana is legalized through the aforementioned ballot initiative - from opening within one mile of an existing dispensary. It was the first round in the latest series of clueless maneuvers to pit medical outfits against recreational shops, precipitating an anti-cannabis op-ed in the Boston Globe by Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and the state's attorney general.
A Boston City Council meeting last week about the one-mile proposal was open to the public, but without an opportunity for people to offer testimony, making for notable frustration.
Many councilors conceded they don't understand much about the upcoming recreational marijuana initiative. Meanwhile, marijuana advocates like Nichole Snow of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, and Will Luzier of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, both of whom know a considerable amount about the move in play, sat in polite silence. This while councilors demonstrated how much information they lacked and cited outdated regulations about dispensary placement that were changed months ago by the Department of Public Health.
Unfounded fears about dispensaries in residential areas
Overall, none of the councilors expressed righteous horror at the prospect of legal recreational marijuana. Nevertheless, most seemed chiefly concerned about imaginary threats posed to residential areas.
"I'm not trying to keep people from smoking marijuana," Councilor Frank Baker of Dorchester said. "I just want to add an extra layer of protection for the neighborhoods."
Councilor Michael Flaherty, who sponsored the amendment, put forth the notion that his measure was the only thing keeping residential blocks from turning into Red Light districts overnight.
Before the vote on his amendment the following day, Flaherty announced that after speaking with some stakeholders and in order to quell skeptical colleagues, he decided to adjust the amendment back to a half-mile. The compromise measure passed, prompting the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance to file a complaint that the "amendment was created based upon misinformation."
Why was the public denied a voice at council meeting?
Council may have been operating according to proper procedure when they didn't allow member of the public to speak at the open meeting. But one has to wonder why councilors would deny stakeholders a chance to testify.
Looking for answers, we turned to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF). As it turns out, all the councilors who received contributions from people affiliated with Patriot Care, which currently has three locations planned for the Commonwealth, voted for the measure, which will seemingly benefit the medical dispensary by drawing a half-mile No Competition Zone around their coming location in downtown Boston.
It's become apparent over the past couple of weeks that this situation is putting potential competitors to Patriot Care at a disadvantage. So it's fair to ask if Patriot Care donations to council campaigns are having any influence over the process.
According to OCPF records, the councilors who collected the most contributions from Patriot Care are the same ones who introduced zoning that will ostensibly benefit the enterprise.
Councilor says he has thousands of donors
Reached for comment, Councilor Flaherty, who reported the most Patriot Care-related contributions for a total of $850, rejected the notion his zoning proposal was made as the result of any donations. In a phone interview, Flaherty suggested that his having 4,000 donors proves that no single contribution - or in this case, four donations - could sway him.
We also reached out to Patriot Care spokesman Dennis Kunian for comment. He said his group had no position on the zoning amendment, and added that Flaherty "came up with [the proposal] on his own."
"My wife or I contributed to Councilor Flaherty," Kunian wrote in an email. "We also gave to many other councilors, city, state, and national figures along with a number of causes."
Which brings up a good point about how much influence dispensaries have statewide. This isn't just a Boston issue. As the inevitable medical vs. legal battle warms up in the Bay State, it's important to keep in mind that people affiliated with groups like Patriot Care have donated to the campaigns of state officials including senators who just released a controversial report warning against legal cannabis, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the attorney general - all of whom are opposed to legalization.
Whether the recent decision to keep dispensaries from locating near one another stems from campaign contributions or pure ignorance, Massachusetts politicians seem more interested in passing additional restrictions than they are in increasing access for patients.
Mike Crawford is a medical marijuana patient, the host of "The Young Jurks" on WEMF Radio, and the author of the weekly column The Tokin' Truth, which is produced in coordination with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Andy Gaus is a Massachusetts-based cannabis advocate and a member of MassCann-NORML.