Marijuana stores are open in Mass. Now what?
After a two-year wait that tested the patience of marijuana consumers and business owners, recreational pot shops are finally open for business in Massachusetts.
So far, just two cannabis retailers have opened their doors: Cultivate in Leicester and New England Treatment Access, or NETA, in Northampton, each located far from the state’s most populated areas around Boston.
In Boston, it will probably be months before the first shop opens.
Within the next month or so, the state is only likely to see — at most — another three shops open: Pharmacannis Massachusetts in Wareham, Alternative Therapies Group in Salem, and INSA in Easthampton.
Each of those companies won a final license from the state Cannabis Control Commission earlier this month but cannot open before clearing an exhaustive final inspection by the commission.
Another 23 or so retailers around the state hold provisional licenses and will soon move to the next step in the process.
All told, 100 companies have applied for 192 recreational licenses — would-be cultivators, retailers, and processors trying to open in communities from Western Massachusetts to Cape Cod.
Steve Hoffman, the commission’s chairman, declined to put a firm date on the opening of the next wave of stores but said he’s hopeful more will open before the end of this year.
Hoffman and other commission officials have consistently defended the pace of the agency’s rollout of recreational sales, saying that they are committed to thoroughly applying the law’s long list of requirements and that they won’t rush noncompliant companies through the process.
They touted the successful launch of the state’s “seed-to-sale” inventory tracking system on Tuesday, which allows real-time monitoring of cannabis plants and products derived from them.
“From a regulatory standpoint . . . our inspectional process is really robust; from a compliance standpoint, our technology functions just as we expected it to,” Shawn Collins, the agency’s executive director, told reporters last week. “What I’m proud of is it is a completely regulated market, literally from seed to sale.”
Customers shouldn’t expect the agency to suddenly approve scores of shops, insiders said, citing the commission’s consistent stance that it would rather move deliberately than rush and risk missing something.
“They’re going to do their thorough diligence on every application,” said Valerio Romano, an attorney who represents numerous companies applying for licenses. “They’re not going to start letting things slide just because the first two shops are open. This is not just a rubber-stamp agency.”
In any case, Romano added, the slow pace of the recreational rollout and the siting of stores in far-flung corners of the state are largely attributable to municipal resistance, not commission foot-dragging.
However, he said, that could soon change, with dozens of local moratoriums on pot companies set to expire on Jan. 1 — and as city and town officials watch their neighbors raking in revenue from taxes and fees on such firms.
“There’s something powerful about seeing those lines of people with money in their pockets,” Romano said. “If, in a couple months, others open and the sky hasn’t fallen and [local officials] keep getting positive impressions about what kind of money these little towns like Leicester are making — they’re going to start saying, ‘Hey, we could use that.’ ”
Municipalities have also drawn fire for demanding generous — perhaps unlawfully large — payments from cannabis companies in exchange for local permits. Critics say that practice has driven up pot prices, slowed down the debut of marijuana stores, and made the early industry accessible only to larger, well-capitalized firms.
However, the commission earlier this year declined to review those contracts to see whether they comply with caps on their value, saying the law doesn’t clearly give it the authority to do so. Some in the industry are considering pushing for legislation that would force the commission to review host community agreements and reject those calling for overly large payments.
“Early operators were forced to pay the ransom locally to get open,” said David O’Brien, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association. “We hope and expect that will not be the case moving forward. We hope the Legislature will step up.”
In addition to lowering prices and speeding up the opening of future pot stores, a loosening of municipal restrictions could increase the number of marijuana firms owned by local residents — and members of disadvantaged groups affected disproportionately by the war on drugs, who under the law are supposed to get a boost in the state licensing process.
Somerville, for example, recently instituted an ordinance that will see the city approve such local and so-called “economic empowerment” applicants on an alternating basis with more established medical dispensaries.
“In my view, the rollout will be faster and more equitable as more cities and towns seize the opportunity to embrace small and local businesses,” said cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title. “I hope that as moratoriums expire, local officials will look to cities like Somerville.”
For consumers in Boston, where voters overwhelmingly backed legalization at the ballot box in 2016, the imminent opening of ATG in Salem will provide a somewhat more convenient option for buying cannabis; it’s 30 to 40 minutes away from the city, while Cultivate in Leicester is a little more than an hour away.
But when will stores actually open in Boston itself? Not anytime soon.
The administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a strident opponent of legalization in 2016, only signed its first host community agreement with a marijuana business in October, for a cultivation and processing facility in the Newmarket industrial neighborhood called Green Line. It recently signed a second contract with a marijuana retailer called Ascend, run by former Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral, to be located on Friend Street near TD Garden. A number of other companies are still negotiating with — or waiting on — the city.
The mayor recently acknowledged to the Boston Herald that the city’s five-step application process — which advocates and industry leaders have criticized as slow, subjective, and opaque — is “complicated,” though he said he thinks a recreational marijuana company might open in Boston “early next year.”
Both Green Line and Ascend can now proceed to the state application process, which will probably take several months. But since neither company is operating under a medical marijuana license and must build their facilities from scratch, their actual opening dates are probably even further out.