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Cambridge City Council Weighs Recreational Marijuana Legislation

Cambridge City Hall
Cambridge City Hall in Central Square.

The Cambridge Ordinance Committee heard public testimony on granting permits for recreational marijuana shops in Cambridge at a City Council hearing Thursday.

The City Council is currently considering legislation that would regulate the process for acquiring permits to open recreational marijuana shops in Cambridge. The proposed legislation prioritizes the granting of permits to those from historically marginalized groups such as women and minorities.

The prioritization of historically marginalized groups comes from 2017 guidelines by the statewide Cannabis Control Commission that seek to “ensure that people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry.” In order to do this, the commission created specific programs to prioritize these applicants.

The discussion at Thursday’s hearing centered on two amendments to the proposed legislation: one submitted by Councilors Sumbul Siddiqui and Quinton Y. Zondervan last week, and the other by Councilor E. Denise Simmons Thursday morning.

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Siddiqui and Zondervan's amendment would bar anyone who is not an “economic empowerment” or “social equity” applicant from opening a recreational marijuana shop in Cambridge for the next two years.

“We have over 100 economic empowerment applicants in the state and not one has been able to open a store yet, so this is a great opportunity for us in Cambridge,” Zondervan said at the hearing Thursday.

In an interview Friday, Siddiqui said the amendment constitutes a “head start” for local businesses over larger corporations.

In response to some local medical marijuana dispensary owners' concerns that this rule might hurt their ability to subsidize costs for patients, however, Simmons introduced a second amendment just hours before Thursday’s hearing. That amendment would allow current registered marijuana dispensaries to begin selling recreational marijuana if they contribute $250,000 annually to a fund to assist “economic empowerment” businesses for the next four years.

During the hearing, Simmons said she was concerned about hurting patient access if Siddiqui and Zondervan’s proposed amendment passed.

“We just want to be sure at least here in Cambridge that we are providing as much equity and continuity of service and care when we talk about the medical part of it as possible,” Simmons said.

Simmons also said the pair’s proposed amendment “may violate state law,” given that it prevents those who do not qualify from opening a dispensary for two years.

Zachary W. Berk, a lawyer from Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr law firm — which represents three Cambridge medical marijuana shops — testified at the hearing that Simmons's amendment is a “win-win for everyone” and urged the councilors to adopt it. The firm submitted a letter Monday to the council on behalf of its clients — Sira Naturals, Inc., Revolutionary Clinics, Inc., and Healthy Pharms, Inc. — that stated Siddiqui and Zondervan’s proposal is unconstitutional and would be "swiftly challeged" by the firm's clients.

Despite this concern, City Solicitor Nancy Glowa said at Thursday’s hearing that she believes it is “legally permissible” to institute a delay of up to two years prior for when anyone other than “economic empowerment” or “social equity” applicants can open a recreational marijuana shop.

In response to Simmons’ proposed amendment, Zondervan said at Thursday’s hearing that “economic empowerment” applicants and registered marijuana dispensaries should discuss the feasibility of the proposed fund in the coming weeks to ensure “the arrangement would work.”

The City Council has been considering how to regulate the new legal marijuana industry for months. It voted to begin drafting recreational cannabis zoning and licensing laws in March 2018. The council heard a zoning petition in September 2018 proposing various conditions for retailers to be able to sell recreational marijuana in Cambridge.

The vote and petition came after Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana through a November 2016 state ballot referendum.

The hearing drew a crowd of hundreds of local residents and advocates who were divided on the two amendments.

In his testimony, Cambridge resident Grant E. Ellis said that Simmons’ amendment would be “tantamount” to giving “corporate marijuana interest” the same advantages as “economic empowerment” or “social equity” applicants.

“I feel personally, along with the people that I'm here with, that the amendment to the ordinance places corporate medical marijuana dispensaries on an equal footing with those harmed by the war on drugs, which is an outrageous affront to human decency,” Ellis said in an interview Thursday.

Nichole Snow — the executive director and president of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance — said she supports Simmons's amendment during her testimony. In an interview after the hearing, Snow said she lobbied Simmons to submit the amendment to ensure that medical marijuana dispensaries can compete in the new market.

Asked about the MPAA’s lobbying efforts, Simmons did not respond to a request for comment.

At the conclusion of the hearing, city councilors decided not to vote on the legislation and said they will continue discussions in July.

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem

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