Our view: Pot store charges outrageous, untraceable | Opinion

A recently published report on how cities and towns are using fees charged to marijuana retailers in their communities has raised a number of red flags about how the money is being used. Or, in the case of some communities, abused.

Further, it raises questions about transparency, or, in the case of some communities, lack of transparency.

Finally, the report, compiled by a Northeastern University professor at the behest of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, a trade group, raises questions about accountability. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

Jeffrey Moyer of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University said a review of local spending records revealed “widespread differences” in how communities collect, track and report the spending of fees from cannabis businesses.

“With no effective oversight over the collection or spending of these fees, it’s up to municipalities to comply with the law that governs them,” Moyer said. “While some municipalities are following the spirit of the law and striving for real transparency, most are not.”

The result of such malfeasance directly affects small businesses as well as their customers in the form of higher prices and a higher cost of doing business.

Caroline Pineau, owner of Stem, a retail shop in Haverhill, noted that the justification for high fees — the need for more police or fire calls at marijuana shops — is completely unwarranted.

“We’ve been open for three years now, and in that time, we’ve shown that we’re no different than any other local business,” she told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade. “We shouldn’t be treated as a piggy bank that can be raided for local spending that has nothing to do with our business.”

Indeed, Moyer found that in many cases, the money is being deposited into the communities’ general funds, with no way of tracking how it’s being used. For all anyone knows, the money could be used to pay the salary of the mayor, or health benefits for public works employees, or a new plow for a DPW truck.

The report was based on public records requests to 88 local governments, including Salem, Massachusetts, Gloucester, Haverhill and Amesbury.

At least 12 communities, including Gloucester and Amesbury, were among those that didn’t explain how the money from fees would be spent, the report said.

The law gives communities the option of charging pot shops excise taxes of up to 3% on retail sales. That’s on top of a 10.75% state cannabis excise tax and the state’s 6.25% sales tax.

In addition to those taxes, cities and towns may charge impact fees that are “reasonably related to the costs” of hosting a pot business, such as staffing additional police patrols. But those fees cannot exceed 3% of the company’s gross revenue.

Fortunately, cooler heads may soon prevail. The state Legislature is mulling legislation that would nullify current host agreements between marijuana operations and local governments, and require them to renegotiate the terms.

A final version of the proposal is being hammered out by a six-member conference committee of House and Senate negotiators.

Hopefully, the Legislature will act soon to clamp down on the runaway fees being charged by these host communities.

At least one big fear is that so much money is being requested of these fledgling businesses that in the end, only large corporations will be able to play in the sandbox of marijuana retail shops. And that in itself would be a crime, as prices would just keep going up and the only real losers would be the cannabis customers themselves.