As cannabis transitions quickly from taboo illegal drug to legal substance, public officials struggle to balance the needs of diverse stakeholders. The legalization has created complex challenges for municipal, county, and state policy-makers who must craft regulations for the budding industry, and for the business owners on the frontlines who are trying to play by the still-evolving rules.
To help policymakers navigate the changing landscape, Clark University’s School of Professional Studies, beginning in January 2020, will waive tuition fees for its online Graduate Certificate in Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control for qualified Massachusetts state and municipal employees. John G. LaBrie, dean of Clark University’s School of Professional Studies and associate provost for professional education, made the announcement as part of a panel discussion at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, co-hosted by the School of Professional Studies and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“As an educational leader, Clark University strongly believes in increasing the awareness of, and understanding of, the policy issues surrounding cannabis that have impacted many Massachusetts communities,” said LaBrie. “Clark is excited to partner with municipal organizations and is committed to bringing relevant programs to the public.”
The panel discussion, “Cannabis – Implications for Business, Community and You,” explored the business, regulatory, and social aspects of the state’s growing cannabis industry.
The panelists brought a range of experience to the discussion, which also featured a spirited question and answer session. All agreed that even with the challenges that continue to emerge, working on a policy issue like cannabis is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Because of the diversity of issues and the complexity, cannabis is a fascinating policy item,” said Shawn Collins, executive director of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. “How do you not take that chance to build a state government program from scratch?”
Several panelists expressed the need for more public education on the health effects of cannabis. “There are over 100 different strains so no one knows what effect it will have,” says Dr. Zach Dyer, a public health advocate in UMass Medical School’s Department of Clinical and Population Health Research. “And we are not having those conversations.”
Research was done with the marijuana of the past, but the product has become much more powerful, Dyer explained. A practical difficulty in studying cannabis and its effects is that unlike alcohol, cannabis is not one single chemical. While much can be learned from countries like Canada and Israel, which have existing programs, the reality is that policymakers and the public don’t know the long-term implications of cannabis use.
Normally we look to the FDA for drug approval, but with cannabis citizens have voted to go around that process, Dyer continued. Federal research into product safety and effects is not happening and the individual states must create a feasible framework for policy, implementation, and accountability — without data to inform their decisions. According to Jonathan Havens, cannabis law expert at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, LLP, the hope is that state officials will take advantage of and leverage the existing forward momentum to make sure products are safe across the board.
In addition to uncertainty about possible health impacts, the industry faces challenges from zoning approval, public pushback, and even finding a bank that will accept their cash. Currently only three financial institutions in Massachusetts will work with cannabis businesses, but Collins believes more will become involved in the future.
“It truly is a game of whack-a-mole,” said Havens. “You hit one problem and another one pops up —we are confronted with a new issue every day.” Policies and regulations being created in the industry must be filtered through the lens of federal law which considers cannabis an illegal substance, regardless of state laws.
In addition to Collins, Dyer, and Havens, panelists included David O’Brien, president and CEO of the Mass Cannabis Business Association; Norman Birenbaum, implementation director at the R.I. Department of Business Regulations; and facilitator Kathleen M. Jordan, DHA, executive vice president and CEO of the Seven Hills Foundation.
The Certificate in Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control is an online, three-course program that covers the public policy issues surrounding legalization of cannabis. Clark launched the first-in-the-nation graduate certificate program last summer. Participants learn firsthand from leading experts including municipal officials, public health experts, and law enforcement leaders. Tuition costs will be waived for qualified applicants who have completed an undergraduate degree program, but program fees still apply. Credits for all three of the certificate’s required courses are transferrable either to the Master of Public Administration degree or the online MPA Senior Leadership degree.