Cannabis cafes where consumers could enjoy marijuana together may be coming to a small number of Massachusetts cities and towns chosen to participate in a Cannabis Control Commission pilot program, marijuana regulators said Tuesday — though they cautioned that such businesses are unlikely to open for months or even years.
Commissioners said they would partner with a handful of municipalities that want to host “social consumption” businesses. The commission and local officials would work together to craft rulesm then study the impact of the businesses before allowing more to open across the state.
“There’s a lot of energy to try to figure it out and see if we can make it work,” said the commission’s chairman, Steve Hoffman. “Personally, I’d like to see it happen, because I do think it’s a social justice issue . . . with respect to being able to consume someplace safe if you can’t do so at your house.”
The pilot group would help answer some fundamental questions for the commission:
Would the cafes sell marijuana products or simply allow BYOC (bring-your-own-cannabis)?
Could they permit smoking, or just vaping and edibles?
How would they discourage stoned driving and over-consumption?
What about one-time licenses for marijuana-themed weddings and other events?
And should other, existing companies — such as movie theaters and yoga studios — be allowed to offer cannabis on the side?
The “concept would be exciting,” said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who volunteered his city for the program. “We feel it would drive people to the city and lead to an increase in spending at other small, local businesses.”
Advocates say state-licensed social-consumption businesses are a critical step if marijuana is to achieve regulatory parity with alcohol, the fundamental pitch made by legalization proponents in 2016.
They also argue that cannabis cafes would give tenants in apartment buildings and public housing develiopments where smoking is banned — plus tourists and parents who don’t want to keep pot around the house — a safe, legal place to use a legal product.
Licensed cafes might also cut down the number of people smoking marijuana on sidewalks and in public parks, which is technically illegal but punishable only by a $100 fine that’s rarely enforced.
Finally, the commission sees the licenses as an opportunity to boost its equity programs, which are meant to encourage participation in the marijuana industry by people from communities that were disproportionately affected by the decades-long war on drugs. The agency voted earlier this year to award social-consumption licenses only to participants in those programs and to certain small businesses.
However, the drafters of the 2016 legalization initiative may have inadvertently obstructed that vision.
The initiative says municipalities must “opt in” to allowing social-consumption businesses. To do so, proponents must collect signatures from 10 percent of a municipality’s voters, triggering a communitywide referendum that conforms “to the provisions of the General Laws relating to initiative petitions at the municipal level.”
But according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, which oversees elections, there are no such provisions in Massachusetts law — leaving most cities and towns with no legal way to authorize social-consumption businesses.
“It is not clear how they would do so,” said Galvin’s spokeswoman, Debra O’Malley. “There is no procedure supplied in the statute.”
The authors of the initiative acknowledged the issue, but noted that lawmakers failed to correct it while rewriting the law in 2017. “If we made a technical error, then we apologize,” said Jim Borghesani, former spokesman for the pro-legalization campaign. “If we could fix it ourselves, we would. However, it looks like this requires a legislative fix.”
A change drafted by Galvin’s office and submitted to the Legislature by Governor Charlie Baker earlier this year went nowhere. Some lawmakers believe Galvin is interpreting the law too narrowly and could, if he wanted, create a process for local leaders to follow under the current statute.
The confusion has stalled local action. “We’re frustrated with how little guidance there’s been,” Morse said. “We don’t want to move forward . . . if it’s just going to be invalidated.”
An Easthampton entrepreneur, Karima Rzik, tried to organize a referendum authorizing social-consumption licenses in her city. But she said her group, despite building strong local support, was rebuffed by Galvin’s office. In the meantime, she has emptied her savings while leasing an empty retail space for a cannabis cafe she had hoped to open.
“They’re stymieing the will of the voters,” Rzik said. The delays, she added, “chilled the money — no investors want to touch social consumption now.”
There is another obstacle: Baker and law enforcement officials remain deeply concerned about a possible uptick in marijuana-related traffic accidents, the diversion of pot to minors, and secondhand smoke.
“It would be extremely difficult to do compliance,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, who sits on the Cannabis Advisory Board. “I don’t think we have the funding.”
Proponents say those concerns are overblown, arguing that although drunken driving is far more dangerous — and prevalent — than driving under the influence of cannabis, bars tied to numerous OUI convictions rarely face serious consequences. And they noted that consumers have been getting together to smoke pot in private for decades, even before doing so was legal.
“Marijuana users are not criminals, so we should not be treating them like criminals,” cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title said. “They can go about their day, they can incorporate marijuana in the same ways that users of other legal substances can. We have to make sure that it’s safe and that we’re minimizing the public health consequences.”
Currently, only one social-consumption-style business is openly operating in the state: Worcester’s Summit Lounge, which is organized as a BYOC, members-only club.
Michael Vigneux, a Worcester city spokesman, said, “there have not been any issues with the Summit Lounge in terms of public safety.”