To Kobie Evans, one year in the marijuana business can seem like seven. “In the industry, we talk about cannabis in dog years,” he says, “because things change so quickly.”
It’s been five years (but seems like more) since Massachusetts’ first recreational marijuana shops opened in November 2018, leading to traffic jams and two-hour waits. And it’s been 3½ years since the winter of 2020, when Evans opened Pure Oasis on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. “We were the first recreational cannabis dispensary to open in a major city on the East Coast,” he says proudly, and “the first minority-owned [recreational] dispensary on the East Coast.”
A lot has changed since those early days. This June, when Evans and his co-owner opened a second Pure Oasis in Boston’s Financial District, the vibe was totally different than all those dog-years ago. And he’s nervous.
“It’s actually very, very scary,” Evans says. “When everyone was speculating about the industry, back in 2016, ‘17, ‘18, we all had these high hopes and all these grand expectations.” Now, he says, “The reality is setting in that there isn’t this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
For one, retail marijuana prices in the state have plummeted by more than half over the past two years, from an average $13.92 per gram in July 2021 to $6.21 this summer. Meanwhile, retail licenses in Boston — super-hard to get in the early years of legalization, requiring acrobatic twirls through a web of red tape — are now flying out the doors at the rate of about one every month, according to figures from the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, which oversees the industry.
“Customers have a lot of options,” Evans says. “You’re selling a commodity, meaning that they can go to five different dispensaries and get the exact same product.” Pure Oasis is getting as much foot traffic as it ever has — but where a customer might’ve spent $60 per visit in 2020, that total is now more like $45.
Pure Oasis spent $1 million building out its new, high-rent location. “Where we are downtown, I can expect five to nine dispensaries to open,” Evans says. “With competition, high rents, and a lot of options, as well as not as many people working in Downtown Crossing [post-pandemic], you’re going to start to see retail establishments in areas like this close, because it’s just not sustainable.”
All across the state, marijuana businesses are feeling the squeeze. Competition is fierce: The state now has more than 300 recreational marijuana stores, with more than 180 would-be businesses in the pipeline.
Low prices and intense competition are great news for customers, of course — they’re enjoying a stoner’s market, full of cheap, varied ways to get high. But Massachusetts’ pot price plunge is part of a national trend scuttling some entrepreneurs’ hopes of prosperity. Cannabis Business Times, a national trade magazine, is filled with dire headlines, such as “Dispatches From the Failing Cannabis Economy” and “California Cannabis Operators in Peril as American Dream Turns to Nightmare.”
In Massachusetts, the industry is still growing overall. But a national cannabis company called Trulieve announced it was pulling out of the state this year, citing, in part, market pressures. Those pressures show no sign of easing up, and the challenges may be even worse for small businesses, newcomers getting licenses years after their competitors, and minority-owned businesses.
The 2016 ballot measure that legalized pot made a bold promise: that the state would “promote and encourage full participation” in the industry by those harmed in the war on drugs. But efforts to help “social equity” applicants took a long time to launch, giving bigger companies a head start.
A drug that promises a carefree high now means high anxiety for its growers and sellers. “So what you can do is work very hard to eke out our own niche in the market, and have our own brand identity, and fight for every client,” Evans says. “And then just cross our fingers.”
“Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it, judges smoke it, even lawyers too,” Peter Tosh sang in 1976, after leaving Bob Marley and the Wailers, “so you’ve got to legalize it.” Massachusetts did just that, and now we’re living Tosh’s dream — and the long-held dream of every ganja-lover, joint-clipping hippie, giggling Cheech & Chong fan, weed-celebrating hip-hop star, green-thumbed grower, Amsterdam cafe tourist, and joker-smoker-midnight-toker.
Marijuana is now on sale from city storefronts, suburban strip malls, and small-town main streets, from North Adams to Provincetown (plus on the islands). The options are overwhelming: pre-rolled joints, loose flower, vapes, tinctures, gummies, candies, concentrates, lotions, and THC-infused sparkling water. Your friendly neighborhood budtenders are more than happy to talk you through all of them, to match a product to your intended mood.
In 2020-21, an estimated 1.5 million Massachusetts adults used marijuana at least once a year, according to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That’s 27 percent of adults — up from 19 percent in 2015-2016, just before legalization. It’s still a lot less than the 56 percent who’d had at least one alcoholic drink in a month, but the numbers are growing.
One couple I know keeps a jar of edibles on their liquor shelf. Another friend buys vape cartridges, for walking her dog and relaxing. Another stashes a rainbow of edibles in a kitchen cupboard, including a dark chocolate sea salt bar and six types of gummies for a range of target moods, such as “bliss,” “uplift,” and “excite.”
Highway billboards across the state hawk cannabis dispensaries; on stretches of the Massachusetts Turnpike, it can feel like it’s all that’s being advertised. “Why not? It’s legal!” says an ad along VFW Parkway, for a West Roxbury shop called UpTop. Stores seem to vie with each other for the most creative names, from pot puns (The Verb is Herb in Easthampton, Seagrass in Salem, and Hadleaf Cannabis in Hadley) to hints at the bliss that awaits (Dazed Cannabis in Holyoke and OMG Cannabis in Fitchburg). One store name, Kush Groove in Cambridge, crosses a marijuana strain with the name of a 1985 hip-hop film.
Step inside a cannabis dispensary, and you’ll likely see bright white walls, tasteful pastels, blond wood, and glassy minimalism. They typically look simple and uncluttered — so legitimate, so legal. (“Where are the crunky pot shops?” a friend asked.)
At Pure Oasis’ new downtown store, on the ground floor of an office tower from 1905, the entryway’s wall looks like a hanging garden, completely covered with bright-green plastic leaves, clover, and long grass. A security guy checks my ID with decidedly un-Bostonian friendliness.
Inside, an equally friendly saleswoman greets me and asks what I’m looking for. Something to help me sleep, I say. She leads me to a touchscreen and talks me through the menu.
The saleswoman recommends Bedtime Betty’s, a cannabis fruit chew, with doses of the cannabinoids THC, CBD, and CBN. It’s part of the Betty’s Eddies line from the Massachusetts-based company MariMed. The saleswoman says she has insomnia, but when she takes a Bedtime Betty and goes to bed 30 minutes later, she’s “out like a light in 10 minutes, until morning.” I choose the raspberry creme chews and head for the counter. There, about 10 workers, each in a black T-shirt adorned with the Pure Oasis logo, are chatting, mostly among themselves. I’m one of only three customers — although it is 3 p.m. on a Monday — and my cashier tells me the rush is around 7 p.m.
She rings up my 10-chew package: $16.99, plus $3.40 in state and local taxes — that works out to a low, low price of $2.04 per high. Before the cashier staples the Bedtime Betty’s into a discreet paper bag, she lets me know I have chosen wisely.
“Betty’s a great lady,” she says.
Tito Jackson, the former Boston city councilor, greets me on the ground floor of Apex Noire, his new recreational cannabis dispensary on State Street, near Faneuil Hall. Six years out of office, Jackson has translated his political skill into savvy marketing. “We are Boston’s — as well as the world’s — first seven-story, full-service, experiential cannabis dispensary, edible factory, and roof-deck bar and lounge,” he says with a smile.
Behind the first-floor counter, boxes of product — Jedi Kush 1G Dablicator, Bubby’s Choco Chip Bites, Hashables Tropical Typhoon — lie in plastic bins. Up the stairs, a digital screen announces registration for “Follow the Bliss,” a “cannabis-infused improv class” offered with nearby Improv Asylum. The building used to house the Japanese restaurant Kamakura, a victim of the pandemic. The kitchen in the basement will soon start producing edibles. Jackson bought the restaurant’s liquor license and plans to open a bar on the sixth and seventh floors.
Jackson and his employees wear black baseball jerseys with “Apex” stitched in red across the chest, in the Red Sox font. “Apex” for the pinnacle, “the top tier” of service, he says; and “Noire” for Black, because, “in the state of Massachusetts, people of color have been disproportionately jailed” for marijuana.
Jackson says he was the first Massachusetts elected official to endorse marijuana legalization (in a Boston Business Journal story that, coincidentally, ran on 4/20/2016). He also cites an American Civil Liberties Union study that found that in 2014, six years after the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, Black people in Massachusetts were still more than three times more likely than white people to be arrested for possessing marijuana, and seven times more likely to be arrested for selling it.
‘If you allow your cannabis business to look, feel, and approach this industry like a liquor store, and you’re a smaller operator, then you’ve lost.’
Tito Jackson, a former Boston city councilor and owner of a new downtown dispensary
Now, 80 percent of Apex Noire’s employees are people of color, Jackson says, and about 25 percent have a criminal record. “We give opportunities for those folks to participate in an industry [where] they may have been an early adopter,” he says. “Now it’s legal, and those who got locked up should not be locked out.”
Even with all of Jackson’s political savvy, it took years to open Apex Noire. Jackson got a hold of this building in 2020, but Apex Noire didn’t debut until this year, with a January soft opening and an April grand-opening block party that attracted more than 2,000 people. The logo on his jersey’s sleeve says “Est. 2020″ because he wants to commemorate how hard it was to acquire financing, navigate Massachusetts and Boston cannabis regulations, and actually open.
Jackson began exploring cannabis entrepreneurship after losing the 2017 Boston mayor’s race to Marty Walsh. A financial partnership with an out-of-state company fell through, so he pieced together additional financing slowly, from family and friends. He says he had host community agreements — local licenses from the city — in three other places before opening on State Street.
Raising capital is the toughest part for cannabis entrepreneurs, Jackson says, especially for entrepreneurs of color. Another challenge is identifying a building — and paying rent, maybe for years, while seeking licenses and making no sales. To open Apex Noire, Jackson needed a host community agreement, a state provisional license, state approval of architectural drawings, building permits, a “post-provisional license inspection,” a “final” state license granting permission to bring product on site, a “post-final-license inspection,” and, finally, permission to commence operations.
“It’s a walk in the valley of death,” Jackson says, “and a walk of faith.”
Now that other shops have opened, Apex Noire has to thrive in a competitive downtown market. Three other dispensaries, including Evans’ new Pure Oasis store, are within an eight-minute walk. That’s why Jackson aims to sell Apex Noire as a destination with its own character. He needs to.
“The lifeblood is being able to create your own brand, your own experience and value, beyond simply the offer of the product,” he says. “If you allow your cannabis business to look, feel, and approach this industry like a liquor store, and you’re a smaller operator, then you’ve lost.”
‘It’s a little bit of an arms race. We all carry similar products. Some folks will drive past you if they can get it a dollar or two cheaper. So, people are price matching or trying to beat each others’ prices.’
Matt Yee, COO of a Northampton dispensary
If you judge only by the billboards, you might think Massachusetts is saturated with pot shops. But that’s only true in some places: Parts of the state have lots of dispensaries; other parts have relatively few.
Cities and towns that wrote pot-friendly rules right away now host lots of competition, and the market is figuring out who’ll survive. But places like Boston slow-walked their cannabis regulations at first. That’s why the downtown market is only really heating up now.
By contrast, Northampton, one of the state’s 420-friendliest towns, originally put no cap on the number of marijuana dispensaries it approved. At times, the city has chosen not to levy a community impact fee, which can reach as high as 3 percent of sales.
Now, Northampton is the first Massachusetts city to see multiple recreational dispensaries close. Two multistate operators, The Source and Trulieve, shuttered their stores there in the past year. The Source, based in Nevada, cited the “specific business environment in Northampton.” Trulieve closed all three of its Massachusetts dispensaries, and will close its Holyoke manufacturing plant (where a worker died in 2022 from occupational asthma due to exposure to ground cannabis). The Florida-based company said its assets were “impaired due to the competitive environment” in Massachusetts.
Enlite Cannabis Dispensary opened in Northampton in November 2021. The company’s chief operating officer, Matt Yee, says competition there is fierce. “In our downtown core, we have about six dispensaries all within walking distance,” he says. “It’s a little bit of an arms race. We all carry similar products. Some folks will drive past you if they can get it a dollar or two cheaper. So, people are price matching or trying to beat each others’ prices.”
As marijuana prices have fallen nationwide, the cannabis market in some Western states has crashed. Colorado, which legalized pot in 2012, lost 28 percent of its cannabis jobs in 2022, according to the Vangst Jobs Report, an industry analysis. California, which approved legalization in 2016 (like Massachusetts), lost 13 percent last year.
That hasn’t happened yet in Massachusetts. The cannabis industry added 1,158 jobs here last year, for a total of 28,370 — the fifth-most cannabis jobs of any state, according to the Vangst report. But that’s a much smaller increase than in 2021, when Massachusetts added 11,112 jobs. The slowdown points to a question: Could an actual crash happen here?
“No, not to the degree you’re seeing elsewhere,” says Frank Colombo, the director of data analytics for Viridian Capital Advisors, a cannabis investment firm. One reason, he says, is that some national cannabis companies have either pulled out of Massachusetts or reduced their presence here. “That’s probably why you see stabilization of pricing in Massachusetts,” he says. In fact, recently, it’s even “up a little bit.”
Each state’s marijuana market is different, because each state has set very different rules for the industry, Colombo explains. While California has allowed nearly unlimited cultivation, leading to a massive oversupply, Massachusetts has set limits on how much any one cultivator can grow. Also, no single company can operate more than three recreational dispensaries here, which means it’s harder for big, multistate operators to dominate the market.
“Because of the three-dispensary limit, Massachusetts is under-dispensaried,” says Colombo, who lives on Cape Cod. Colorado now has more than 600 recreational dispensaries to Massachusetts’ more than 300, even though Colorado’s population is slightly smaller. By the end of 2022, Denver alone had 178 cannabis retail stores; as of this summer, Boston has 24.
“The dispensaries in Massachusetts that are doing the best are in locations where there’s only one or two dispensaries,” Colombo says, “so they have much less pricing pressure on them.”
Still, with prices low and inflation driving up the cost of doing business, marijuana companies will have to be lean to survive here. “I think that it’s going to require really careful management of costs,” Colombo says. “You need to be pretty brutal about how many people do we really need to have [working] at this dispensary?”
Success in Massachusetts’ marijuana industry has been hard to achieve for the people legalization was supposed to help most: residents of places harmed by the war on pot and people with drug convictions. Though that goal was in the law from the beginning, disadvantaged applicants didn’t get much support in the early years. Now, they’re entering a market where pressure is building and profit margins have thinned.
The Cannabis Control Commission has created equity programs, intending to give disadvantaged populations a boost. But the state rolled out the programs slowly. Meanwhile, bigger companies got a head start in Massachusetts by opening dispensaries after the 2012 legalization of medical marijuana. They were among the first companies to add recreational dispensaries in 2018 and 2019, while local entrepreneurs were just getting started.
Payton Shubrick opened 6 Brick’s, now one of four recreational dispensaries in Springfield, in September 2022. The shop leans into its status as a local, minority-owned business, selling T-shirts that read, “Support Black-owned businesses” and “Buy weed from Black women.”
Shubrick’s competitors so far are multistate operators, including one less than a mile away. “They were able to market themselves with a ton of billboards that line the highways,” she says. “We had to figure out more grass-roots efforts, as I didn’t have a large budget.”
Shubrick sent team members out around town wearing 6 Brick’s T-shirts. Marijuana companies aren’t allowed to pass out fliers — what if they left one on a car of someone under 21? — but if someone asks about the store, Shubrick says, then employees can offer information.
The state did give social-equity candidates a head start in marijuana delivery, setting aside the first round of licenses for people from historically disadvantaged populations. But delivery companies have complained that the state’s strict regulations have made it extremely hard for their businesses to succeed.
Chris Fevry cofounded Your Green Package, which began marijuana deliveries in the Boston area in July 2021. “There’s been multiple times during that two-year journey where we almost went out of business,” he says. Your Green Package has survived by cutting staff, trimming its delivery areas, and going into wholesale distribution services for other cannabis companies. “If we hadn’t expanded to provide distribution services,” he says, “we wouldn’t exist today.”
The last frontier for the state’s marijuana industry is “social consumption”: Amsterdam-style pot cafes and other places where people could use marijuana in public.
Fevry, like other delivery operators, wants the state to repeal its rule that two drivers have to go out on every marijuana run. Since delivery vehicles carry cash and pot, the fear was they’d be targets of thefts, but that’s proven to be an overblown anxiety, he says. “In most cases, the driver is not carrying much product or cash at all.” Most of Your Green Package’s transactions are made with debit cards and the delivery cars are unmarked.
A state law passed last year, meanwhile, aims to help social-equity marijuana companies: It requires cities and towns to consider equity questions when approving local licenses. It also calls for establishing a loan fund to help companies run by people from disenfranchised backgrounds. This money would come from the state marijuana tax, which collected $157 million in 2022. But the fund isn’t up and running yet.
Critics say such help, seven years after legalization and still counting, is coming too late. “They can never make that up,” says Shaleen Title, a former Cannabis Control Commission member who often advocated for disadvantaged businesses. “It’s not really fair competition when one segment started years later.”
The last frontier for the state’s marijuana industry — and perhaps its last big chance to include people harmed by the war on drugs — is “social consumption”: Amsterdam-style pot cafes and other places where people could use marijuana in public. Proponents envision restaurants with cannabis-infused sauces and meals, movie theaters and concert clubs, and canna-yoga.
The first shot at social consumption licenses would also go to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. But many fear a repeat of the delivery dilemma. They think the state’s draft regulations for consumption sites will make it hard to succeed. For instance, the draft rules would prohibit smoking indoors, though they would allow vaping.
“We live in New England,” says Matt Yee, of Enlite Cannabis, who’d like to open a cannabis consumption lounge. “To ask people to smoke a joint outside in January is not a very favorable look.”
Sam Kanter operates Dinner at Mary’s, a Boston-based catering and meal-kit company that offers cannabis-infused olive oil with its meals. Kanter officially only sells the food, offering the olive oil free of charge; state law allows people to give small amounts of marijuana as a gift. She wants to open a social-consumption restaurant in Cambridge or Somerville. Though she doesn’t qualify as a social-equity entrepreneur, she has a partner lined up who does: a man who served time for marijuana trafficking.
“It will be New England-inspired fare,” Kanter says. “It will be American, very seasonal. We will have traditional appetizers and entrees. We’ll have full dosage control” — from cannabis-infused sauces, served on the side.
But the draft regulations (which the Cannabis Control Commission is still considering) don’t allow a cannabis-related restaurant, Kanter says: They would only allow the serving of shelf-stable edibles. She says she’s talking with the CCC commissioners about rewrites to the proposed rules.
If social consumption rules prove workable, Tito Jackson could be well positioned to start a cannabis lounge at Apex Noire, even if the requirement to only smoke outside sticks. The building he’s leasing came with a retractable glass roof.
Up on the seventh floor, Jackson presses a button, and the roof hums and rolls back, revealing a gorgeous, up-close view of the Custom House Tower. For now, the space is earmarked for Apex Noire’s forthcoming bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails. In the future, it could instead be an ideal spot for smoking a joint with friends. “I don’t think there’s any location in this state that has the kind of foresight that this place actually has,” he says.
Jackson says he’s interested in opening a social consumption lounge, though “it depends on the regulatory environment.” If social consumption doesn’t prove workable, he can stick with alcohol. (He doesn’t expect Massachusetts, or any state, to allow alcohol and pot consumption in the same space.)
“There’s something called a third place,” Jackson says, as a breeze and seagull cries enter the lounge. “You’ve got your home, you’ve got your work. But now, especially in this hybrid environment, a lot of deals and connectivity happen at a lounge, at a bar, or coffee shop. I really look at this as being the premier third place in the cannabis sphere.” He’s banking on it.
Erick Trickey is enterprise editor at the nonprofit newsroom The New Bedford Light and a lecturer in the Boston University department of journalism. Send comments to email@example.com.
Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this story undercounted recreational marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts. More than 300 are open, and more than 180 are in the pipeline. It has also been updated to correct the number of recreational stores in Boston; there are 24. The Globe regrets the errors.