'Uncertainty' For MA's Legal Pot Industry After Federal Statements

BOSTON (WBZ-AM) -- Monday's statement by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts that he would not rule out federally prosecuting state-sanctioned marijuana businesses--as well as the Justice Department's decision last month to rescind a policy that eased enforcement of federal marijuana laws--left many wondering about the future of the recreational pot trade in the Bay State.

"There's a great deal of uncertainty that surrounds this marijuana industry as a result of what's come down from Washington," acting Senate President Harriett Chandler told WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Carl Stevens. "It obviously determines whether people can go into the industry with some degree of certainty."

She said the state wants to give those marijuana businesses that level of certainty--but that federal law is a whole different animal.

In his statement, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who was confirmed in his position last month, said he will assess each violation of the federal marijuana prohibition on a case-by-case basis--but what that meant wasn't exactly clear.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that he's looking forward to a conversation with Lelling to learn more about his position--because, he said, if government resources are limited, he'd rather see the feds' energies going toward combating the opioid epidemic.

"What I would stress to him is, the big public health crisis that we're dealing with in the Commonwealth these days is opioid addiction, and street drugs like Fentanyl," he said. "I would like to see his limited resources focus on the elements that are killing many people here today in the Commonwealth."

Gov. Baker urged the federal government to "recognize and understand that the voters of Massachusetts voted to create a legal, regulated recreational marijuana market here in the Commonwealth."

Massachusetts' legal marijuana industry, created as a result of a 2016 ballot initiative, is expected to be set up by the state's Cannabis Control Commission by this summer.

At the commission's meeting Tuesday, Chairman Steven Hoffman said both Lelling's statement and Sessions' announcement left the commission's job unchanged.

"We remain committed to fulfilling the will of the voters of the Commonwealth, which is to implement and administer a regulatory process that is safe, equitable, and efficient," Hoffman said. "This is the mandate that was set for us by the voters of Massachusetts, as well as by the legislature."

But later, Hoffman acknowledged that the threat of a federal crackdown might affect the willingness of potential investors to jump into what's estimated to be a billion-dollar market in Massachusetts.

"Individual investors are going to look at the risks and rewards, and potential returns in this industry," he told WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Kendall Buhl. "I know they're going to do the analysis, but I can't tell you I know how that analysis is going to come out for each individual investor."

The new federal re-positioning may also affect patients using marijuana for medical purposes--and Michael Latulippe, Development Director of the Massachuestts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said it already is.

"A large majority of the dispensaries, as of yesterday, are no longer offering debit card transactions, because one of the processors apparently has basically decided that they are going to no longer offer these services to medical marijuana dispensaries," he said. 

When asked if the push against pot would cut off patient access to medical marijuana in favor of opioids for pain management, the governor expressed support for Massachusetts' medical marijuana footprint, and noted that it was also brought about by voters.

"For people for whom that's a viable and appropriate way of dealing with all kinds of issues--nausea, anxiety, a whole variety of things--that's become an important element in how they get through their day, and we need to factor that into the way we think about it," he said.

Latulippe said a rally would be held by medical marijuana patients and others at the Federal Courthouse in Boston over the changes Thursday morning.

As political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, Will Luzier was a driving force behind the voter-approved law to regulate marijuana like alcohol in Massachusetts. He's unhappy about the suggestion that the federal government might step in.

"I think it's unfortunate that the U.S. Attorney feels like it's his responsibility to mess with the will of Massachusetts voters," he said. "That's very unfortunate, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

Luzier suggested a state law directing local law enforcement to not cooperate with any such federal effort--and believes that federal lawmakers might move to states' rights, perhaps even legalizing pot nationwide.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Carl Stevens reports

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