, Newburyport, MA

February 11, 2014

Our view: Closer scrutiny needed in marijuana laws

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Massachusetts is new to the medical marijuana business, and it is clear that many lessons should be learned.

One of them is the role of the “letter of non-opposition.” These letters are filed by public officials on behalf of the business seeking a license for a marijuana dispensary and/or farm. Applicants who included letters of support or non-opposition got extra points in the evaluation of their applications in the highly competitive bid to win a license.

In Amesbury, former Mayor Thatcher Kezer stirred some controversy when he sent letters of non-opposition on behalf of two businesses that sought to create medical marijuana farms in Amesbury. The applications had been kept quiet from the general public, until after the election was held. It was political calculation on the part of the then-mayor and a minority of city councilors whom he had informed. The rest of the council was surprised, and some were quite upset, to learn they had been kept in the dark.

It would have been far more open and honest to have the general public informed of the applications and a public hearing held, before giving what amounted to the city’s sign-off on the projects.

In Haverhill, a similar letter written on behalf of Healthy Pharms Inc. has raised many questions that center around James Jajuga, an influential public figure who was hired as a consultant to represent the company.

The Eagle-Tribune, sister paper of The Daily News of Newburyport, learned that key to the successful application of Healthy Pharms was a “letter of non-opposition” signed last year by City Councilor Robert Scatamacchia, then the council president. The letter states that the city of Haverhill neither supports nor opposes the siting of a medical marijuana dispensary in the community.

The rest of the City Council only learned of the Scatamacchia-signed letter when The Eagle-Tribune showed it to them last week.

The letter is largely the work of Jajuga, a former state senator and Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce president who is now a Methuen city councilor. Jajuga also runs Jajuga Associates, a consulting firm. Healthy Pharms hired Jajuga as a consultant to advise the company on “the political landscape in Haverhill,” the company’s lawyer said.

In November, Jajuga was shopping around letters in support of Healthy Pharms’ application. There were two versions of the letter: one a letter of support, the other a letter of “non-opposition.” Jajuga tried to get Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini to sign one of the letters, according to the mayor’s aide, David Van Dam. Fiorentini would not sign either; he said previously the siting of the dispensary was a council matter. Van Dam called Scatamacchia, who came to City Hall and signed the letter of non-opposition.

At the time Scatamacchia signed the letter, on city of Haverhill stationery, a City Council moratorium was in effect on locating a marijuana dispensary in the city. The moratorium runs until Feb. 25, but in light of the controversy, the council plans to take up the matter again this week.

Scatamacchia said he felt “duped” by Jajuga and the mayor. He said he thought the letter merely served to inform that state that the city had a moratorium on siting dispensaries in place. He said he was unaware that Jajuga had any involvement in the letter.

Jajuga said he was unaware the letters carried so much weight in the application process. That seems unlikely, given Jajuga’s effort to get one of them signed.

Additionally, the application of Healthy Pharms notes that four city officials or civic leaders met with the company and expressed their support for a marijuana dispensary. Three of the officials cited do not recall a formal meeting with Healthy Pharms but rather only informal conversations with Jajuga.

These accusations involve serious misrepresentations on the application of Healthy Pharms to operate a medical marijuana facility. Jajuga should answer for his role in them. But he declined to comment on the nature of his consulting work for his clients.

Scatamacchia is angry enough that he is calling for the attorney general to investigate. Perhaps Jajuga will answer to her.

It’s clear that medical marijuana is going to be big business. Last month the state Department of Public Health granted 20 provisional licenses to operate medical marijuana dispensaries across the state, from a pool of over 100 applications. The licenses are potentially lucrative for the selected companies as the state begins to allow the sale of medical marijuana after voters approved a ballot measure in 2012.

The state needs to do a better job of policing the process. It’s clear in both Amesbury and Haverhill that the public was not kept in the loop.