On Sunday, Massachusetts became the seventh state in the nation – and the first east of the Rocky Mountains – where adults can legally purchase recreational marijuana. But for those hoping to toke up in the Bay State, there’s just one catch: There’s nowhere to buy it.
Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana on November 8th, 2016. But in the 600 or so days since, a cautious bureaucracy and hesitant local communities have slowed the advent of recreational marijuana dispensaries. July 1st was the first day licensed stores could sell marijuana, but the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) – the body that regulates weed in the state – has not yet issued any licenses to retail outlets.
On Monday, the regulators finally approved the first recreational retail license in the state for a dispensary in the central Massachusetts town of Leicester. However, it will still be some time before it opens: Regulators need to approve a laboratory to test recreational marijuana before dispensaries can begin sales and all approved dispensaries are subject to inspections before they can welcome customers.
Since legislation only stipulated when marijuana sales could begin – not when they had to begin – no deadline was missed, CCC chairman Steven Hoffman tells Rolling Stone, adding that the commission is working effectively to get licensing done right the first time. “There is no legislative mandate for a start date for this industry: It’s do it right, to do it right for the long term. And that’s exactly what’s happening,” he says.
While the state missed its July 1st target date, those in the cannabis industry here anticipate that the first retail outlets will open in the coming weeks. But amid continued opposition to the drug from some local communities – which have to approve marijuana businesses in addition to the CCC – they also anticipate a slow rollout, one which will be more of a trickle than a flood. “There’s going to be a rush on the first day, on that first store,” says Jim Smith, a Boston attorney whose firm represents over a dozen marijuana businesses. “It’s going to be like an Apple iPhone rollout only more intense: The entire state on one store.”
But while weed is coming, Massachusetts – at least for now – is not primed to become the next Colorado or Oregon.
Across the state, at least 190 communities – more than half of all municipalities – have slapped moratoriums or outright bans on marijuana retail stores within their jurisdictions. Some have gone further and banned any kind of marijuana-related business, meaning cultivators or even testing facilities can’t set up shop. And while many moratoriums were set to expire at the end of this year, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey raised fears last week that they could go on longer after approving one town’s request to extend its weed freeze by an additional year.
Many communities that have allowed marijuana businesses have set up strict zoning guidelines that cannabis advocates fear will push dispensaries into undesirable locations and drive up rents and real estate prices. For example, while pot shops are allowed in Boston’s commercial areas, marijuana businesses of any kind are subject to a half-mile buffer zone in the city. “There’s a puritanical streak that runs through here, and this is another example of that puritanical streak,” says Smith. “For a very blue state, we’re cautious about many things, and this is one.”
Marijuana advocates hope that local attitudes on weed will change with time – and with the windfall of cash that pot sales are expected to bring. “Over the first couple years, what happens is that people realize that the sky doesn’t fall and that this is actually an important source of revenue for local municipalities,” says Norton Arbelaez, the government affairs director of New England Treatment Access, a medical marijuana producer and retailer that is planning to expand into recreational sales. “I would expect that over the near term, some of that reticence on behalf of local governments is going to subside.”
Laury Lucien, an attorney and aspiring marijuana entrepreneur, says that once local communities see that marijuana businesses aren’t conforming with their fears “they’re going to want a piece of the action.”
Hoffman, the CCC chairman, says the moratoriums are temporary measures taken by towns that need more time plan and zone for marijuana businesses.
“The moratoriums I think are going to be temporary, so I don’t think that’s going to have a long-term impact of how this industry is going to roll out across the state,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I expect the moratoriums, as they expire, these cities and towns will open for business.”
For recreational users, pre-existing medical dispensaries are almost certainly going to be the first places they’ll be able to buy weed. With product already growing, brick and mortar storefronts and ties with local communities, they are in the best position to supply pot to the masses and have been given prioritization for license application reviews by Massachusetts’s recreational marijuana legislation.
Arbelaez says his company, NETA, has already applied for recreational licenses for their medical dispensaries in the western Massachusetts town of Northampton and the Boston suburb of Brookline. “The day we get the license, we’re ready to sell,” he says.
Medical dispensaries that are also selling recreational pot will be required to keep at least 35 percent of their inventory reserved for patients. At NETA, Arbelaez says two lines will be established to make sure that medical patients can still get in and out with the expediency they’ve come to expect. While he says they’re ready to open their doors to recreational users, he anticipates initial supply problems and says they may have to limit the amount of bud customers can buy.
And while recreation-only dispensaries will ultimately open up, it still benefits medical marijuana patients to buy from medical dispensaries as medical marijuana will not be subject to the taxes that recreational pot is. Plus, their lines will likely be shorter. While medical dispensaries will likely be the first shops to open to recreational users, the CCC says there will be enough room in the market for smaller players to get involved in the industry.
To help some of them along, the state has launched ambitious social equity and economic empowerment programs that aim to lower the barriers of entry into the industry for members of communities that were most affected by the war on drugs: People with past marijuana convictions, residents of 29 “areas of disproportionate impact” and businesses that are run by minorities or have a large percentage of minority employees.
The state’s economic empowerment program is designed to prioritize recreational marijuana license applications from communities affected, while the equity program aims to provide professional and technical assistance and mentoring to those entering the industry.
The programs give applicants a leg up, but some worry that opposition from local communities along with the high costs involved with opening a marijuana business could leave out many who want to get involved. “The process and the system continue to be just that,” says TaShonda Vincent-Lee, the co-founder of Elevate New England, an organization working to promote diversity in the marijuana industry. “And it’s still managing to block out and keep out those folks who have suffered the most based on the war on drugs.”
Still, there is hope that the programs will help undo some of the damage.
Sean Berte, a 40-year-old former Boston firefighter, served eight months in federal prison for growing and selling marijuana. He says the drug ruined his life, and a decade later he is still picking up the pieces and dealing with the harsh financial realities of being an ex-convict.
But he hopes recreational marijuana and the state’s equity program will help do right by him and others who suffered under past drug policies. “People are still in jail for this plant while [other] people are making a lot of money off of it,” he says. “I want the people who paid the price to get their shot, too.”
Berte wants to open a cannabis cafe, like ones found in Amsterdam, where sales and consumption are allowed on-site. The CCC has not yet decided whether or not to allow marijuana cafes, but if they do, licenses will be initially restricted to social equity program applicants to give them an advantage.
“The exclusivity period that we’re going to be given as social equity and small business applicants should be as long as possible. Otherwise, these programs are just a facade,” he says. “When it comes down to it, all I’ve ever really wanted to do was sell weed to my friends.”