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December 9, 2022

Cannabis regulators want big budget increase

Photo | Nathan Fiske Marijuana growing at Leicester cannabis firm Cultivate.

Members of the Cannabis Control Commission voted Thursday to approve a fiscal year 2024 budget request of more than $23.7 million, including 26 new hires and $1.5 million to fund public awareness campaigns called for in this summer's cannabis industry reform law.

Fiscal 2024 does not start until July 1, 2023, but state departments and agencies have to get their budget wish-lists in with enough time for the executive branch to consider them before it kicks off the budget process early next year. Because of the transition to a new governor, Gov.-elect Maura Healey's first budget will be due to the Legislature by March 1.

The CCC's budget request, as approved unanimously Thursday, seeks $18.5 million for the main agency operations line item, $3.7 million for the medical marijuana program, and $1.5 million for public education campaigns. That would represent an increase of $4.5 million or 23.4 percent over the CCC's fiscal year 2023 budget award. Agency officials said some of the increase is meant to help the CCC implement the state's new cannabis equity law.

"The general focus was on implementation of revised statute and regulations as well as enhanced support structures in response to these regulatory changes to make sure that we're keeping up with our capacity to meet these requirements," chief financial and accounting officer Adriana Leon said.

The CCC got a budget of $19.22 million for fiscal 2023 and its financial team determined that simply maintaining the spending, contracts and staffing from the current year would require a budget of $20.34 million. If CCC Executive Director Shawn Collins had accepted every budget request from his department heads, the CCC's budget ask would have been $26.2 million.

The public education line item was not funded in the CCC's fiscal 2023 budget, but the Legislature added to the agency's public education mandate in the August cannabis law by requiring "a campaign to educate the public on health risks associated with marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinol consumption, including, but not limited to, the risks: (A) to mental health; (B) of use during pregnancy; (C) of use of high potency products; and (D) of home extraction of marijuana concentrates."

"I think it's important to note that even though we have not been funded in the past, the new law obviously, as a reminder, put some stipulations and requirements on the commission to undertake public awareness efforts. So hopefully they will support us for that request," Commissioner Bruce Stebbins said.

The CCC also wants to have a detailed discussion in the new year about whether it should continue with pandemic-era policy allowances like allowing new medical marijuana patients to join the program without meeting a doctor in person, but first commissioners could extend them one more time.

Three specific policies -- the telehealth allowance for initial medical marijuana consultations, the ability for medical marijuana dispensaries to conduct curbside operations, and the authorization for cannabis companies to hold virtual community outreach meetings -- are set to expire Dec. 31 and the executive director raised the topics Thursday to get a sense of how commissioners wanted to address them.

"It's not on your agenda today, so it would not be appropriate for a vote today given that the public has not been given notice there may be a vote today. But I wanted to flag it for your consideration as, first off, is it something that you might be interested in extending? If so, certainly, there's a few options to do. One is to call a meeting with one specific topic. The other, of course, is that if the commission is so inclined, these things may lapse," Collins said.

Chairwoman Shannon O'Brien said she is not inclined to allow the policies to lapse "because I just don't think it's the right practice for us to follow," and suggested that the commission find time before the end of the month to hold a meeting with the sole purpose of considering a short-term extension "in essence punting it to a longer, more robust conversation."

Other commissioners suggested they would welcome the more robust discussion. Stebbins said he'd like to hear from some of the businesses and people who might be affected by a change in the policies and see data on participation in the virtual outreach meetings. Commissioner Kimberly Roy said she has concerns about extending in perpetuity the authorization for telehealth visits for initial medical marijuana certification.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo asked why the commission couldn't vote on an extension Thursday and the agency's general counsel agreed to look into whether the commission could take such a vote at the end of its meeting under the agenda item for "New Business Not Anticipated at the Time of Posting."

O'Brien said that the CCC missed getting the matter onto Thursday's agenda "by a matter of hours, unfortunately."

"The good news is it's not a $3 billion 'oops, we missed it.' So, you know, I guess we're kind of ahead of the game, so that's good," O'Brien said, seemingly making a reference to the $3 billion impact from the tax rebate law known as Chapter 62F that caught the House and Senate by surprise in July.

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