Marijuana stores are slowly opening around Massachusetts, but industry analysts estimate that three-quarters of all cannabis sales still occur under the table.
In that climate, police leaders say they are unsure of their role when it comes to unlicensed marijuana sellers. They are caught between licensed companies that are urging crackdowns on their non-tax-paying competitors selling cheaper cannabis, and communities calling for no more pot arrests, which have historically targeted people of color.
“The police are confused,” former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis said Thursday at the Northeast Cannabis Business Conference. After legalization, he said, “the police have a lot of demand to do other things, so they simply moved away from enforcement in that area because the people have spoken, number one, and number two, it’s slightly confusing.”
But now that licensed businesses and some regulators are pressing authorities to rein in underground sellers who undercut the regulated market and push potentially dangerous vaping products, Davis said, there is likely room for enforcement. Civil fines may make more sense than jail, he said.
Law enforcement prefers to focus on crimes with victims, said Davis, a security consultant whose clients include The Boston Globe. Now, “This new industry is actually being victimized by illicit growers and distributors. In the past, a lot of times you’d call this a victimless crime.”
Licensed companies may claim to be victims, but there are many who see them as the villains, benefiting from the consumer market originally built by underground operators who faced prosecution for decades. Some of those operators now feel excluded from the legal industry because of the enormous capital and political connections often needed to navigate local and state approvals.