Recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts are unlikely to open until the end of October or even later, after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday failed to issue final licenses as hoped.
Commission chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters two weeks ago that representatives of several pot firms with provisional licenses had indicated their facilities were ready to be inspected — a key step before opening for sales — and could be handed final licenses Thursday. That didn’t happen, Hoffman said, because the agency “just didn’t get peoples’ requests [for inspections] in time.”
“As soon as we got the requests we responded immediately and scheduled them as soon as we could,” Hoffman said after the commission’s meeting Thursday. “That’s not something that we delayed.”
Cannabis sales to adults 21 and older had been scheduled to begin July 1, although that date was merely a target and not a legal deadline.
Voters approved the legalization and regulated sale of marijuana nearly two years ago, in November 2016. The state Legislature a month later delayed most provisions of the ballot measure by six months and rewrote substantial portions of the law.
Since July, Hoffman has repeatedly said he cannot put a firm date on the launch of pot sales, as there are too many moving pieces to make a guarantee. He has also noted that other states created crises by rushing to implement legalized marijuana sales.
To open, prospective marijuana stores and the growers and manufacturers that will supply them — most of them existing medical marijuana operations — must meet several requirements. In addition to lengthy applications, the businesses must submit their executives, investors, and employees to extensive background checks, prove they meet a long list of regulations, sign contracts with the municipalities in which they’re located, pay state fees, and pass two rounds of inspections.
All recreational marijuana products must also be tested for purity and potency by a licensed laboratory. The commission has issued provisional licenses, but no final licenses, to two labs.
Companies currently licensed to sell marijuana for medical purposes must also seek exemptions from state Department of Public Health rules that would prevent them from selling recreational pot, such as a requirement that only registered patients can enter medical dispensaries.
David Torrisi, the head of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said the medical marijuana operators that comprise his group are raring to jump into the recreational — or technically, “adult-use” — market.
“They want to open up like everyone else,” he said. “They receive, five, 10, 15 phone calls a day from people who want to buy adult-use marijuana. I feel we’re getting very close.”
He added: “For some of the first ones that got provisional licenses, I think late October is realistic.”
Torrisi said that the commission isn’t to blame for the hold up, but sympathized with the frustration of consumers.
“In one year, to build an agency, staff an agency, write regulations, approve applications, do inspections — if you look at it through that prism, they’re doing fine,” he said. “If you look at it from the perspective of, this [law] passed two years ago, I get it.”
Hoffman said Thursday that one inspection had been completed and several others were underway or scheduled for the near future. If those companies pass their inspections, the commission may issue a final license at its next meeting in two weeks, he said.
The commission so far has awarded 38 provisional licenses to marijuana companies, among them retailers, cultivators, processors, and labs.
Even after obtaining a final license, however, marijuana companies must register all their cannabis plants and marijuana products in the state’s “seed-to-sale” tracking system, verify that the products have been lab-tested, and pass a final inspection — including a check on whether all its employees are licensed — before actually receiving a “commence full operations” notice to allow sales.
Hoffman acknowledged that consumers are impatient, and said he was “pretty confident” shops would open by the end of the year.
“We’re getting closer and closer, and we’re doing it the right way,” Hoffman said. “I will not apologize for the behavior of the commission. I will say I’m sorry for people that had expectations that were not met — it’s never a good thing.”
“We are focused on and totally committed to building this industry in a way that works for the state of Massachusetts and the citizens over the long haul,” he added, “and that’s much more important than the start date.”
Cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title noted in an interview after Thursday’s meeting that her agency is bound by requirements imposed on it by the Legislature.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t give us a magic wand we could wave and make stores open,” Title said, noting the extensive security and marijuana product-tracking requirements in state law. “Maybe one day, in another jurisdiction, we’ll stop treating marijuana businesses like nuclear facilities, but until then, the law’s the law.”