Nearly 200 prospective operators have so far signaled interest in opening a recreational marijuana business in Massachusetts, state officials said Tuesday, a strong showing in the run-up to the expected debut of commercial pot sales in July.
Following the launch of its online licensing system Monday, the Cannabis Control Commission said 23 companies and entrepreneurs have submitted requests for expedited licensing, while another 167 have started the process.
“Yesterday was a seminal day in the thus-far-brief history of the commission,” said Steve Hoffman, the agency’s chairman. “There were probably a large number of people that didn’t think we’d be ready on April 2 to start accepting applications,” but the agency’s regulations were in place on time last month and its system worked smoothly, he added.
The commission said it would publicly disclose information on individual applicants, including their names and the types of businesses they want to open, later this spring.
Under state law, two groups will have their applications for marijuana licenses processed ahead of other applicants: medical marijuana dispensaries that are already open or have a provisional permit; and so-called economic empowerment applicants — companies that are led by, employ, or benefit members of communities that had high rates of arrests for drug crimes.
Once qualified by state officials, operators in those groups can submit full applications beginning April 16. However, applicants must secure permission from officials in the community where they want to operate before winning a state license, and so far many Massachusetts municipalities have expressed reluctance to welcome recreational pot businesses.
Of the preliminary applications submitted or in progress so far, 77 came from medical marijuana companies. That’s no surprise, as many of the approximately 135 medical marijuana companies in Massachusetts had indicated they would seek recreational licenses to bolster their business and to serve patients who don’t want to register with the state.
The other 113 preliminary applications came from prospective operators who qualify for the commission’s economic empowerment program. That’s a good sign for the agency’s various efforts to redress the stark racial disparities seen in the past enforcement of marijuana prohibition.
“I’m encouraged by the strong interest demonstrated so far and hopeful that many more qualified applicants will apply by April 15,” said Shaleen Title, one of the state’s five cannabis commissioners and the primary architect of the so-called equity provisions of the agency’s regulations. “Ultimately, it will serve the whole Commonwealth to have thriving businesses promoting economic empowerment and creating jobs in the same communities that previously had disproportionate numbers of arrests.”
The real test, however, will be whether those applicants actually get licensed. To that end, the commission plans to offer technical assistance and mentoring to applicants who live in areas that had disproportionately high rates of drug arrests, were arrested for drug-related crimes, or who have a close relative who was arrested for drug-related crimes.
New operators who don’t qualify for the economic empowerment program can begin applying for licenses on May 1 or June 1, depending on the type of business.
Amid the surge in applications, the commission’s new licensing software system held up, officials said.
“There were no blips, there was no stress,” commission executive director Shawn Collins said, “so we are very confident that as folks continue to interact with our system it will perform as expected.”
The cannabis commission Tuesday also voted to move its headquarters to Worcester, from temporary office space in downtown Boston, probably sometime in summer of 2019. It will maintain a satellite office in the Boston metro area and has started looking for spaces that are within a quarter-mile of an MBTA stop.
“This is a statewide agency,” Collins told reporters following the commission’s meeting Tuesday. “Having a location in the central part of the state will allow us to get to every corner of the Commonwealth with relative ease, and I also think there’s cost efficiencies with being in Central Mass.”