Opening a marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts requires all the usual resources: money, expertise, money.
Entering the cannabis business in the Bay State also requires cooperation from local elected officials, in the form of a letter of support or “non-opposition.” No letter, no marijuana business permit—an arrangement that makes that letter extremely valuable.
So how do you get one of those? In Fall River, a struggling former mill town and one of the poorest cities in the state, the answer was “bribe the mayor.”
On Tuesday, former mayor Jasiel F. Correia II—convicted in May of soliciting and accepting more than $475,000 in cash bribes from four would-be cannabis entrepreneurs—was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Correia, who sold himself to voters as a savvy and suave wunderkid when he was elected mayor at the age of 23 in 2016, is one of the highest profile American politicians to be snared in a cannabis-centered corruption scheme. And until cannabis legalization is reformed to not grant extraordinary power to politicians like Correia, he will not be the last.
In the meantime, this is great news for federal law enforcement, for whom marijuana legalization—and the temptations it presents for deciders like Correia—presents a prime opportunity to bust corrupt politicians. And as Politico reported in detail last December, they have been busy doing so.
According to the Justice Department, after he assumed office in January 2016, Correia accepted bribes “ranging from over $75,000 up to $250,000 in cash, campaign contributions and mortgage discharges” from four marijuana vendors (one of whom was involved with a company now trying to acquire a medical-marijuana license in Georgia).
In one analysis, the saga of Fall River is more about Correia and not cannabis. According to the feds, Correia was a crook as far back as his college days, when he spent cash invested in a smartphone app on watches, shoes, strip clubs, and fancy hotels.
Thirteen of the 21 crimes of which he was convicted in May stemmed from fleecing investors. A judge on Monday threw out eight counts of wire fraud and false tax returns; all eight counts of extortion and conspiracy related to the marijuana bribes—crimes Correia committed while under investigation for his earlier crimes—were upheld.
But the saga of Fall River is also a cautionary tale about how cannabis permits work when elected officials are granted the power to pick and choose who enters the business, rather than letting the almighty market decide.
Similar tales of cannabis entrepreneurs possibly bribing politicians to score a coveted license are popping up all over the country—in California, Nevada, and Chicago. These areas all have one thing in common: Acquiring a license requires approval from local elected officials.
“It’s an area, much like casinos or alcohol, where the ability to make that choice creates a lot of power,” said Julie E. Steiner, a professor and expert in cannabis law at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, Mass., who followed the case. “And you have to have an eye towards the fact that it’s a potential avenue for corruption.”
“There are ways to do this in a fair and appropriate way,” she added. “The problem is top-down control.”
In Massachusetts, state regulators at the Cannabis Control Commission have been demanding for years that they be allowed to review “host community agreements” like the Fall River non-opposition letters.
“Until it happens, there is a strong incentive for officials to act this way,” said drug-policy attorney and former commissioner Shaleen Title, who has called the current arrangement “ripe for corruption” and “a tool to hold [cannabis companies] hostage in exchange for significant financial benefits that go beyond the law.”
In addition to welcoming corruption, granting cities the power to limit cannabis businesses also ensures that cannabis remains in the hands of wealthy investors and entrepreneurs, who skew white.
As Title recently told the state, only eight of Massaschusetts’s 223 licensed cannabis businesses are “equity businesses,” run by Black or brown entrepreneurs. And granting pols like Correia the gatekeeping power “is one of the top reasons why,” she said.
Correia, who has already filed an appeal, has eight weeks to report to prison. Whether there are other Correias in other states hinges on what policies those states enact.
It remains to be seen whether New Jersey and New York, two of the most recent states to legalize marijuana, and arguably two of the most important given their population, will follow Massachusetts’s example and gift small-town mayors and city councils similar power.
If they do, marijuana legalization will continue to keep the federal Justice Department extremely busy.