Cannabis regulators to vote on final licenses, but retail pot sales may still be weeks away
The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission could soon grant final licenses to two recreational marijuana shops — but the start of retail pot sales is probably still weeks away.
State officials will vote either Thursday or next Tuesday on whether to issue final licenses to a marijuana store in Northampton run by New England Treatment Access (NETA) and to a marijuana cultivation, processing, and retail complex in Leicester owned by Cultivate Holdings, according to a meeting agenda published by the commission Tuesday.
Both NETA and Cultivate Holdings already operate as medical marijuana dispensaries regulated by the Department of Public Health, or DPH.
“We’re very excited,” said Sam Barber, Cultivate’s president. “Our team is working hard to make sure we check all the boxes and have everything ready to go. I get the feeling we’re very close now.”
To win a recommendation from the commission’s staff that they be approved for final licenses, both NETA and Cultivate had to pass exhaustive, hours-long inspections, with officials checking for compliance with a long list of state regulations.
But even if the five commissioners vote to issue the licenses at one of their two upcoming public meetings, a number of steps remain before the shops can open their doors.
They must pass another, final inspection before getting a “commence full operations” notice and beginning sales.
And perhaps most significantly, the shops must wait until a testing laboratory wins a final license from the commission, since all marijuana products must be tested for purity and potency before sale. That won’t happen for another two weeks at the earliest, and even then, the labs won’t be able to start recreational operations immediately.
Norton Arbelaez, NETA’s director of government affairs, called on the commission to waive the lab-testing requirement, arguing that his company’s products have already been cleared under the DPH’s nearly identical medical marijuana testing protocol.
“For products that have already been tested according to the medical process and pose no threat to public safety, it would be burdensome, unfair, and costly to make us test that exact same product at the exact same lab again,” Arbelaez said in an interview. “The only reason would be to meet some phantom bureaucratic need.”
Commission officials have suggested the agency lacks the authority to waive the testing requirement, which is part of state law.
To open, marijuana stores must also receive waivers from health officials exempting them from medical marijuana rules, such as a regulation stipulating that only registered patients can enter the dispensary. And they’ll need permission from the DPH to transfer products from the medical marijuana system to the adult-use system overseen by the commission, which requires operators to attach ID tags to every cannabis plant and electronically track all products, from seed to sale.
Barber said the DPH has not responded to waiver requests that Cultivate submitted “months ago.” Arbelaez said NETA is also waiting for a response to its waiver requests.
A spokeswoman for DPH said Cultivate didn’t submit proof it held a provisional license from the commission, and that once it did, the company’s waiver request would be processed within several days.
Other steps remaining for the stores include securing commission approval of their child-resistant packaging and label designs, which cannot be too colorful or appeal to youths.
In the meantime, Barber said, consumers continue to call and show up at Cultivate’s dispensary, only to be turned away. He said it’s impossible to predict when his shop will open for recreational sales.
“I would have thought we would definitely be up and running by now,” Barber said, noting that Cultivate received its provisional license in early July. “We get calls all day, and we have to have the conversation with every customer — ‘this still needs to happen, that still needs to happen, and we’re trying to get there.’ Our approach is to just be ready and hope for the best.”
Earlier this week, leaders of the 2016 campaign to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts held a press conference in front of the State House, blasting the commission for failing to issue a final license months after the July 1 target date for cannabis sales to begin.
Operators, too, are becoming increasingly frustrated.
“We’re on the one-yard line here,” Arbelaez said. “The industry, the labs, and the regulators need to work together and get it done this month. There’s no reason the small issues that are still outstanding can’t be resolved.”
Also on Thursday, the commission is poised to debate whether to license so-called “social consumption” facilities, or cannabis cafes, where patrons could consume marijuana together. Proponents argue such facilities are a key way to achieve regulatory parity with alcohol and will give rental tenants whose leases ban smoking a legal place to use a legal product.
Critics, however, have fretted about a possible uptick in stoned driving.