Final approval to begin sales remains elusive for marijuana retailers in Mass.
Marijuana regulators could issue another six so-called final licenses for marijuana businesses when they meet Thursday, but the retailers who have already been given final approval still have not pinned down when they will open to customers.
When the Cannabis Control Commission meets Thursday afternoon, it will consider granting six final licenses, including one for a Pharmacannis Massachusetts retail store in Wareham. But as the legal marijuana marketplace continues to take shape in Massachusetts almost two years after being approved by voters, final does not necessarily mean final.
The CCC has granted final licenses to four businesses -- two retailers and two testing laboratories -- but none can begin operations until the CCC gives them the notice to commence full operations. The CCC confirmed on Monday that it has not issued any such notices.
Before the CCC will issue the notice to commence full operations, it must inspect the premises of the licensee, ensure that the establishment’s inventory of marijuana is properly tagged and synced up to the CCC’s seed-to-sale tracking system, verify that any conditions imposed when the final license was granted have been met and make sure that all establishment employees are properly registered with the CCC.
Norton Arbelaez, the head of government affairs for New England Treatment Access, said his company has been working since the 2016 legalization ballot question passed to be prepared for the launch of recreational sales in Massachusetts. NETA has been given a final license to sell non-medical marijuana from its existing medical dispensary in Northampton.
“We don’t know what exact day it is we will open,” he said. “I would expect that it will be in the next couple of weeks.”
NETA built an addition to its cultivation facility and increased its production capacity by about 60 percent, and has hired about 100 new employees between its locations in Northampton, Brookline and Franklin, he said.
“This is something we put an inordinate amount of thought into,” he said.
Now, with NETA “on the one-yard line here,” Arbelaez said the company is working to meet all of the CCC’s requirements and is waiting for the testing labs that must approve all marijuana before it is sold to get their final approvals. NETA has not set a date for the start of non-medical sales.
“We’ve received our license, but our opening is really contingent upon a couple of last or final operational details, particularly the uploading and access to the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system,” he said. “We are waiting on a final, final, final go-ahead from the triple-C, which we expect to happen in the very near future.”
The president of the second company to be given a final license from the CCC, Sam Barber of Leicester’s Cultivate, said Monday that his company also does not know exactly when it will open to consumers other than medical marijuana patients.
The CCC is not the only state agency that has a say in when or whether NETA and Cultivate can begin recreational sales. Because both businesses already operate as medical dispensaries, they must obtain additional approvals from the Department of Public Health.
DPH said it has received and approved requests from NETA and Cultivate to transfer some of their inventory to the non-medical market and has approved three waivers -- from NETA, Cultivate and Patriot Care -- to allow individuals other than registered patients into their dispensaries.
Whenever recreational sales do begin, Arbelaez said, NETA has plans in place that it hopes will help medical marijuana patients avoid long lines or long waits for marijuana. There will be a separate line for medical patients and separate cash registers in an attempt to serve patients efficiently. The CCC requires medical dispensaries that will also sell non-medical marijuana to reserve about a third of their inventory specifically for medical patients.
“We really view this as an expansion of our service and not a shift or replacement thereof,” Arbelaez said. “We continue to be committed to our medical marijuana patients.”
NETA has also kept local officials and police in Northampton in the loop as the company prepares for the influx of customers expected whenever non-medical sales start. The company is planning to make off-site parking available and has been in communication with the city about its plans.
“The opening day and the logistics of it and the potential for additional traffic or car volume is something we have shared explicitly with the police chief in Northampton but also the mayor,” Arbelaez said.
The CCC’s agenda for Thursday’s meeting includes consideration of six final licenses: two to NETA for cultivation and product manufacturing, one for the Wareham Pharmacannis Massachusetts retail store, and three for Sira Naturals for cultivation, product manufacturing and transportation.
Regulators on Thursday will also consider granting 11 provisional licenses, including an application from Green Biz Inc. to run a retail store in either Pittsfield or Northampton (the company has submitted two applications, though it is not clear which one the CCC will consider Thursday).
The CCC had hoped to launch the retail marijuana industry in Massachusetts by July 1 but did not meet that target. Since then, CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman has said only that consumers will be able to legally buy marijuana in “late summer/early fall.” Voters approved the legalization of non-medical marijuana in November 2016 and it became legal in December 2016 to grow, possess and use marijuana.