State marijuana regulators made their strongest move yet on the issue of the equity last week, voting for a recreational pot home-delivery program that for three years reserves all delivery business licenses for companies whose owners were affected by the war on drugs.
The new regulatory scheme, approved on a 3-1 vote Monday by the Cannabis Control Commission, will likely see home recreational marijuana deliveries in unmarked vans begin next summer. It also capped an at-times ugly, months-long policy battle between rival factions.
On one side were advocates and entrepreneurs, who said the aggressive plan is a needed course-correction for a largely white industry. State law mandates that the cannabis business include people from Black and brown communities subjected for decades to disproportionately high rates of marijuana arrests.
“It’s a huge deal for entrepreneurs like me because it allows us to ... create a financially feasible business,” said Devin Alexander, vice president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Association for Delivery. “The three-year exclusivity period will be a great tool to help really establish ourselves in the market.”
On the other side was a coalition of brick-and-mortar dispensaries, which has called the exclusivity period illegal and argues the commission is unfairly shutting its members out of the new market while opening the door to dominance by large delivery technology platforms.
Marijuana store owners are especially upset about the commission’s decision over the summer to add a second type of delivery license allowing delivery operators to essentially function as retailers without storefronts, ordering cannabis products in bulk from suppliers and reselling their inventory online. Under the earlier model contemplated by regulators, all delivery orders originated at brick-and-mortar pot shops, with Uber Eats-style couriers bringing them to consumers for a fee.
“This will not be the final word on delivery,” the Commonwealth Dispensary Association vowed in a statement that also argued the policy wouldn’t improve equity. “We are prepared to contest the matter to ensure that policy continues to adhere to the statute and that the market is not upended.”
Although it postponed implementing the rules amid complaints from dispensaries about insufficient public input, the commission held firm, making only modest changes to its proposed delivery rules. Dismissing threats of lawsuits, its members have said the policy is imperative to undermine the illicit delivery market, meet consumer demand, and promote equity.
Commission Chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters he was “very confident that the existing retailers will adapt to the changed competitive circumstances,” while Commissioner Shaleen Title called the rules a “huge step,” though not a cure-all.
The decision delighted proponents, who had fretted the agency might balk as it had in February 2018, when it backed away from a wide-ranging vision of marijuana deliveries and social consumption lounges under pressure from Governor Charlie Baker and other officials.
“After three years of discussions ... I am thrilled that the [commission] put equity and a fair market structure ahead of consolidated corporate profits,” said advocate Grant Smith, who noted the agency has in the past sometimes hesitated to act decisively on controversial issues.
Smith also blasted larger cannabis companies for paying lip-service to equity while consistently lobbying against pro-equity proposals at the commission and in the Legislature.
“Some companies are only willing to support an equitable market to the extent that it protects their own profits,” he said.
Recreational marijuana deliveries are expected to start next year, with each order accompanied by two workers wearing cameras. (Medical cannabis deliveries have been allowed for several years.) Not everyone will be able to summon weed to their front doors, however: Deliveries aren’t permitted to cities and towns that have banned retail marijuana stores.
So far, the commission has awarded two provisional courier-style delivery licenses, while pre-approving another 49. Applications for the online retailer license should become available in January.
Monday’s vote came as turnover looms at the commission. Kay Doyle resigned from the agency earlier this year for a private-sector job, leaving an empty seat; Commissioner Britte McBride has announced her departure, which will take effect next Friday; and Title is in holdover status, her term having expired in August.
Under state law, McBride’s public safety seat is filled by Attorney General Maura Healey; the other two open seats are appointed by Healey in collaboration with Baker and state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg.
On Monday, Hoffman told reporters he was “beseeching” those authorities to make their picks soon, so the commission isn’t left with a bare-minimum quorum of three members.
A spokeswoman for Healey said choices for the two jointly-appointed seats will be announced before the commission’s next meeting in January. Applications for McBride’s seat are still open.
The regulations approved Monday by the commission also include several programs meant to expand access to medical marijuana for patients.