Press pause on Fall River pot applications, lawmakers say

Boston Statehouse

Photo: The Associated Press

BOSTON (SHNS) – South Coast legislators are calling on state marijuana regulators to pause all applications in Fall River in the wake of allegations that the mayor solicited bribes from vendors looking to open in the city.

A moratorium would allow the Cannabis Control Commission to investigate whether any licenses issued in the city were involved in the extortion charges against Mayor Jasiel Correia II and to ensure that the approval process is sound, the lawmakers argued.

Their efforts are proceeding along two paths: a group of Fall River representatives contacted the CCC directly to request the moratorium, while Rep. Christopher Markey, whose district neighbors the city, filed legislation this week that would impose one.

“The indictments are troubling, and I think that the people throughout the commonwealth should at least feel comfortable that there’s a clean slate in Fall River,” Markey told the News Service on Thursday. “I know there may be applications that are out there that you would want to make sure that everything is done above board. I think there’s going to take some time to make sure that happens.”

Federal prosecutors allege that Correia solicited bribes from at least four marijuana companies that applied to open in Fall River by telling them he would only issue local approvals needed — a responsibility that only rests with the city’s mayor — if he personally collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.

None of the companies were named in court documents, and U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling declined to say last week if any would face criminal liability for allegedly paying the bribes.

Lawmakers from the region argued that the situation cast a pall over the marijuana industry, arguing that questions now exist over whether any companies that received approval did so in a legal fashion and whether any law-abiding businesses were improperly turned away for not complying with the alleged extortion.

Reps. Carole Fiola, Paul Schmid and Alan Silvia, the city’s House delegation, penned a letter to the Cannabis Control Commission on Tuesday urging a moratorium on any license approvals until an investigation can be completed.

“For the sake of transparency and those businesses that are seeking to gain access to retail or medical marijuana, they need to see this vetted and see how this process is going to be resolved,” Silvia told the News Service. “I think this could help us in the future as we look at establishing licensees who want to open businesses.”

Neither Fiola nor Schmid could be reached for comment.

Their letter did not place a specific timeline on the moratorium request, but Silvia said he believes 90 days would be sufficient to allow the CCC to conduct a review without significantly impacting businesses.

Markey’s legislation (HD 4481) would call for a pause until Jan. 15, 2020, a roughly similar span to what Silvia suggested.

“They don’t have the resources to push through these things at a rate that they’re coming in,” Markey said. “I think that, just saying, hey, let’s push everything to the side and have them reapply as of January of next year, that will allow the CCC to continue its work in other areas as well.”

Both lawmakers said they had not yet heard feedback from the CCC, which held a public meeting on Thursday, on their requests.

Asked whether the commission would implement a moratorium on Fall River applications, a spokesperson for the commission said the regulatory group is aware of the concerns and will determine if any action is necessary against the vendors involved in the indictment as the case continues. No license applications for a Fall River business went before the CCC this week, the spokesperson said.

The case prompted calls for reforms to the state’s cannabis law. Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that he is “certainly interested” in hearing about the CCC’s request for authority to review and regulate the host community agreements that vendors reach with municipalities.

Silvia said he believes the Legislature should get involved, too, perhaps to mandate that local approval needs several backers rather than just a single chief executive like in Fall River — a system that critics say encourages corruption.

“There has to be something more universal for all communities,” Silvia said.

Fall River’s City Council voted 8-1 this week to temporarily remove Correia from office, according to the Herald News, invoking a section of the city charter that allows them to do so when the mayor is “unable to perform the duties of the office.”

Correia, who has denied the charges against him, said he plans to continue working despite the Council’s order. He and two other candidates will appear on the ballot in the city’s Sept. 17 preliminary election.

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