Marijuana legalization leads to rethinking of Massachusetts alcohol laws

The need to regulate Massachusetts’ newly legal marijuana industry is leading to possible attempts to revamp state alcohol regulations.

State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg said in an interview with The Republican/MassLive.com this week that she was prompted to form a new Alcohol Task Force while looking at how other states regulate marijuana.

“While looking at cannabis, we saw what a lot of other states were doing around alcohol usage and control,” Goldberg said. “One of the models happens to have taken their alcoholic beverage commission and expanded its role.”

 

Goldberg’s office is in charge of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, the commission that enforces laws and regulations relating to the sale, purchase, possession and manufacturing of alcohol in the state. That is the reason that the state’s marijuana law, which voters passed in November, placed regulation of marijuana under the treasurer’s office as well. Goldberg is now tasked with creating and overseeing a new Cannabis Control Commission to oversee the legal marijuana industry.

The task of the new alcohol commission, which Goldberg announced last week, is to review the legal and regulatory framework governing alcoholic beverages in Massachusetts and offer suggestions on what changes should be made.

Currently, Goldberg said, the state’s alcohol laws are “antiquated” and do not interrelate. “There’s no predictability, there’s no smoothness, a fix can create another problem and has,” Goldberg said. “The law hasn’t changed much since 1933, but we’re looking at a 21st century world, so much has evolved.” Federal prohibition laws ended in 1933.

Goldberg said she views the alcoholic beverage industry as an economic driver for Massachusetts. “We want to regulate it in a way that keeps it safe while at the same time ensuring that we are supporting something that creates economic growth,” Goldberg said.

One frequently talked about problem with the liquor licensing system is a law that caps the number of liquor licenses in each city or town and requires all additional liquor licenses be approved by the state legislature, rather than by local officials. Municipal officials have long opposed this law, arguing that it hinders economic development and leads to unnecessary delays in the granting of new licenses. Both Gov. Charlie Baker and former Gov. Deval Patrick have tried to roll back the law, but lawmakers have declined to go along with it. Opponents of a change voice concerns about there being too many liquor licenses and about new licenses diluting the value of older ones.

The liquor license provision was one part of a comprehensive bill released by the Baker administration on Monday, aimed at cutting back red tape and obsolete laws that make it harder for municipal governments to operate.

Another controversial issue that the task force may examine involves the beer brewers industry, which has been seeking more freedom to switch distributors, which is difficult under current law.

One problem Goldberg identified is currently, the licensing process is slowed down by the number of investigators working for the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. So for example, if numerous restaurants apply for outdoor seating in mid-May, it might take until July for an inspector to schedule an inspection.

The task force will examine laws, regulations and the structure of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission itself. “Everything’s on the table,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said she wants any legislative wish list to be “rational and reasonable” so the fixes have the potential to be passed into law. That could mean taking incremental steps toward larger changes.

The commission will hold five regional public hearings, including one in Springfield. It is expected to provide a preliminary report within six months.

The commission will be chaired by E. Macey Russell, a partner at the law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart.

Members of the commission include: attorney Kate Cook, former Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, former chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Port Authority Rachael Rollins, adjunct professor at Quincy College Robert Cerasoli, former state Rep. John Fernandes, and Rosenberg’s press secretary Pete Wilson. None of the appointees has direct ties to the alcohol industry.

 

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