THE GREEN MILE
Whether due to campaign contributions or pure ignorance, Boston City Councilors restrict patient access and claim otherwise
BY MIKE CRAWFORD AND ANDY GAUS
A few weeks ago, on the Boston.com Morning Show with Kim Carrigan on WRKO, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson was asked by a listener, “Will you oppose the proposal for a Boston medical marijuana ban on new dispensaries within one mile of an existing zoned site?” The conversation led to Jackson saying that some patients are still having difficulty gaining access to cannabis as a result of high cost and low accessibility. The councilor wasn’t sure about how he would ultimately vote on the issue, but seemed to understand that the proposal on the table would hurt patients.
Others have expressed far less enlightened viewpoints.
Later the same day, the City Council considered the zoning proposal, formally introduced by Councilor Michael Flaherty, which seeks to keep new medical facilities — or future retail stores if marijuana is legalized through a ballot initiative in November — from opening within one mile of an existing dispensary. It was the first round in the latest series of clueless Council maneuvers to pit medical outfits against recreational shops, precipitating the now-infamous anti-pot op-ed in the Boston Globe by Mayor Marty Walsh, Gov Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey. With some members expressing concerns and saying they needed more information, the issue was delegated to a newly formed working group set to meet at a later date.
The ordeal resumed in the Council chamber on Tuesday, March 1. Since Flaherty’s amendment to the Boston Zoning Code was already the subject of a prior hearing, last week’s meeting was open to the public but without an opportunity for people to offer testimony. On the surface, that seemed understandable — lord knows testimony can drag on — but it made for some frustration. Councilors conceded that they have no idea what’s going to be in this 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 This while councilors demonstrated how much information they lacked and cited outdated regulations about dispensary placement that were changed months ago by the Department of Public Health.
Councilor Sal LaMattina of East Boston urged caution. “The sky hasn’t fallen in Colorado,” he said, presenting a chart showing just how restrictive a mile radius would be in most parts of the Hub. Likewise, speaking with audience members after the meeting, Councilor Mark Ciommo of Allston-Brighton suggested that it was, on the whole, time for marijuana to be legal and regulated.
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 … It should be difficult to open a pot shop. If it’s easy, we’ll have them all over the place.”
And then there was Flaherty, who claimed that some mom-and-pop retail stores in Colorado — hair salons, bakeries, flower shops, etc. — have been displaced by pot shops that pay exorbitant rents. The chief intention of his amendment, the councilor from South Boston explained, was to avoid creating a stoner version of the old Combat Zone. Flaherty also argued that forcing marijuana retail outlets (medicinal or potentially recreational) to spread out would increase access by ensuring that outlets would be spread out across the city.
“When this passes — and I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who thinks it isn’t going to pass — the action will be fast and furious,” Flaherty said. Bracing the body for a vote on his amendment the following day, the councilor put forth the notion that his measure was the only thing keeping residential blocks from turning into Red Light districts overnight.
All 13 councilors were present for the one-mile vote on March 2. 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. Then Flaherty repeated his theatrics. “We know this is going to pass. There will be a mad dash once that happens … I don’t want to have another Combat Zone.”
With the half-mile amendment put to a vote, Downtown Councilor Josh Zakim told the group that he wasn’t trying to deny marijuana to anyone. He called medical marijuana “necessary and important,” and put forth the argument that forcing dispensaries to be apart from each other would ensure that various parts of the city are served. Eventually, the amendment passed, with only Campbell, Ciommo, and Pressley voting in the negative.
Following the hearing, the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance filed an open meeting complaint against Linehan with the office of the Commonwealth attorney general. In the complaint it alleges:
The open meeting rules were violated when the Boston City Council moved the zoning amendment 0271 to a vote during the meeting, and the resulting vote therefore cannot stand. Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance believes that these open meeting law violations were intentional. The City Council was aware since at least Friday, February 26, 2016 that MPAA was opposing this zoning amendment. We were denied the ability to speak or participate in the political process on several occasions even after explaining that we were the primary stakeholder.
The MPAA complaint also noted that Flaherty’s “amendment was created based upon misinformation presented by the creator and predicated on incorrect and outdated information.” Whether the meeting was legal or not, 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 its coming Milk Street location in downtown Boston. It’s become apparent over the past couple of weeks that Patriot Care is fighting to put competition at a disadvantage. 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.
With a vote looming, we attempted to contact the officials who received campaign contributions from individuals associated with Patriot Care. Councilors Zakim, Matt O’Malley, and Baker, as well as Boston Mayor Walsh — each of whom received between $150 and $300 — did not respond to our requests for comment. Councilor Flaherty, who reported the most Patriot Care-related contributions for a total of $850, did respond, but 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.
“I would note that I did not support Patriot Care in their zoning appeal on Milk Street,” Flaherty added. “If I could be swayed by a donation, why didn’t I support them then? I chose to side with the neighborhood opposition, if you remember, and money had nothing to do with my actions in regards to this zoning proposal.”
I 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 are peddling 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 officials including Sens Vinny deMacedo and Brian Joyce, Attorney General Maura Healey, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — all of whom oppose legalization. Also on the receiving end of such contributions are state Sens Stanley Rosenberg and Jason Lewis, who are overseeing a special committee on legalization that just released a controversial report warning against the pending voter initiative.
For those trying to protect their businesses from competition, it’s seemingly money well spent. Whether the impediment is stemming 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.