Local leaders in Leicester and Northampton are preparing for thousands of eager marijuana consumers to descend on their communities Tuesday, as Massachusetts readies to host the first legal recreational cannabis sales on the East Coast.
The two-year wait for recreational marijuana sales in the state will end on Tuesday at 8 a.m., when retail cannabis shops in Leicester and Northampton are set to open their doors.
“This is a very historic moment for the state of Massachusetts to be the first open east of the Mississippi,” said Sam Barber, president of Leicester pot shop Cultivate, at a press conference Monday.
Cultivate and New England Treatment Access (NETA), in Northampton, spent Monday making final preparations for their simultaneous openings, including walk-throughs of each facility by senior members of the state Cannabis Control Commission.
Neither shop could say exactly how many customers it expects. Kim Napoli, NETA’s director of diversity programs, deadpanned that the shop is “certain to see somewhat of a crowd.” Barber said Cultivate was prepared for “thousands,” and pleaded with would-be pot-purchasers not to show up too early.
“We would like to push everyone to not show up too early,” he said. “We need to make sure that the site is clear and that we can create a safe environment. Starting at 7 o’clock is when we expect the lines to begin.”
Barber added that Cultivate “can’t make any guarantees on how long our supply might last.”
NETA, for its part, has instituted purchase limits — just an eighth-of-an-ounce of cannabis flower per customer — to stretch its supply further. Executives at the firm also warned that the usual five-minute transaction time could stretch to 15 minutes, as inexperienced shoppers peruse the long menu of different strains, edibles, and concentrates.
At Cultivate, preparations included erecting heated tents to keep customers warm as they wait outside in the rain and snow expected to hit the region on Tuesday. Shuttle buses will whisk customers to and from a parking lot at a nearby flower nursery and garden center, while Leicester police officers will direct traffic. There will also be food and music, Barber said.
“We want to make sure everybody’s having a great day,” he explained.
Leicester police Chief James Hurley urged customers to “consume responsibly and in compliance with the law beginning tomorrow,” warning that it’s illegal to use marijuana in public or in the car.
“We’re here to make sure that everyone gets in and out of the dispensary and gets what they need in a safe manner, and we would appreciate your cooperation,” he said.
NETA has made similar arrangements, setting up overflow parking in a lot across the street, preparing to distribute water and cups of coffee to customers in line, calling in workers from its other locations, adding more registers for checkout, and coordinating with local police to direct traffic and pedestrians. Customers can also use NETA’s smartphone app to order ahead.
“It’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck situation here in Northampton,” said Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, at a press conference Monday. Still, she added, “we feel very confident that we are very prepared from a supply standpoint.”
Both shops operate as medical marijuana dispensaries, and each reassured registered patients that they would be allowed to skip the line and quickly check out at dedicated registers. The shops have also set aside at least 35 percent of their inventories for patients, to ensure a run by recreational consumers won’t deprive patients of needed medicine; cannabis is commonly used to treat pain and seizure disorders, among other ailments.
“For our medical patients, we would always want to make sure that they have access and we continue to provide them the best possible quality product that we can,” Barber said.
Customers of both stores will be able to pay in cash or with a debit card, though Barber said Cultivate’s brand-new debit terminals likely won’t be set up until about noon on Tuesday.
Cannabis Control Commission chairman Steven Hoffman and Shawn Collins, the agency’s executive director, toured NETA’s Northampton store on Monday afternoon.
The pair of regulators asked NETA budtender Jake Moriarty to demonstrate the company’s child-resistant packaging, and examined labels showing the potency and dose of each product. They also perused a litany of educational booklets and pamphlets explaining how to use marijuana responsibly — the company’s mantra is “start low and go slow,” referring to the initial dose rookie pot consumers should try and how long they should wait before taking more.
Hoffman, who has faced months of questions over the pace of the commission’s rollout of the recreational market, said the imminent first sales were a visible marker of the agency’s progress.
“I’m confident we’ve used our absolute best judgement to kick this off the right way,” Hoffman said. “This is a very important milestone. We’ve been working really hard towards this.”
But, he added, “we have a lot of work left,” including taking on oversight of the state’s medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Health by Jan. 1.
The commission is processing dozens of additional license applications, and Hoffman said he expected more retail stores to open by the end of 2018. He also noted that the agency will continue to inspect NETA and other facilities for compliance with state rules, including through its “secret shopper” program.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” Hoffman said.
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