For weeks, Boston-area consumers who want to buy pot from legal stores have had to trek west to Leicester and Northampton, and then stand in line for hours in the cold.
But soon, they’ll have an option much closer to home — if they can score a coveted appointment, that is.
Salem retailer Alternative Therapies Group, or ATG, is set to begin recreational sales at 9 a.m. Saturday, after receiving a “commence full operations” notice from the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission on Tuesday. The company, which has been operating as a medical cannabis dispensary, said its ceremonial first recreational customer would be Salem City Councilor Josh Turiel.
The commission’s announcement Tuesday comes three weeks after the state’s first two marijuana stores opened: Cultivate in Leicester and New England Treatment Access in Northampton. Those shops have made millions of dollars and attracted huge crowds from around New England and beyond. But they’ve also drawn complaints from residents, particularly in Leicester, about the accompanying traffic and other nuisances.
In an effort to avoid similar problems in downtown Salem — already a congested area — ATG executive director Chris Edwards said his shop will initially operate on an appointment-only basis.
Customers will have to schedule their visit in advance, using a reservation system on the store’s website, atgma.org
Within hours after Tuesday’s announcement, all 600 reservations for Saturday had been booked.
“We’re trying to plan the smoothest rollout of this as possible,” Edwards said. “We’ve been working with the city of Salem for the last few weeks and we’ve come up with a plan that we think logistically will make sense for this area, given that it’s a lot more densely populated than the western part of the state.”
ATG at first will admit only 80 recreational customers per hour, with the last appointments beginning at 6:45 p.m. And to stretch its supply, ATG will limit purchases of marijuana flower to a quarter-ounce per customer.
Shuttle buses paid for by ATG will take marijuana shoppers between the city’s commuter rail station, the Universal Steel parking lot at 297 Bridge St., to ATG’s shop at 50 Grove St., near the Salem/Peabody line.
Those without proof of an appointment won’t be allowed on the shuttle buses and will also be turned away at the store itself by security workers and police details.
Edwards urged those without appointments to stay home.
“We really have to enforce this for now — it’s the only way to avoid major gridlock in the area,” he said. “There was a lot of trepidation here with local businesses and neighbors and abutters. We’re trying to learn those lessons from Leicester and Northampton and implement a system here that will result in less impact on the neighborhood.”
Patients who hold state-issued medical marijuana cards will not need to make appointments, and can make use of dedicated registers, Edwards said.
Salem officials are expecting customers to flock to the city from around New England. They said they drew on their experience hosting crowds for the city’s Halloween and Fourth of July celebrations, which routinely draw tens of thousands of visitors.
“Salem’s used to having crowds — we’re a tourism community,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said in an interview. “This is definitely a different twist, but that October planning — we’re using the same efforts with this.”
Salem police spokesman Conrad Prosniewski said dozens of officers will be patrolling to discourage public marijuana consumption and impaired driving, and to enforce traffic and new resident-only parking rules. ATG has paid for extra police details, he added, while officers from neighboring Peabody will help manage traffic coming into the area.
Salem police also took notes from their counterparts in Leicester, deciding on the appointment-only and shuttle bus system after studying that town’s traffic problems.
“Looking at them, we’re glad we’re not the first,” Prosniewski said.
Prosniewski and Driscoll pleaded with ATG customers to take the MBTA commuter rail to Salem and use the store’s shuttle bus instead of driving.
But even though they sweat the possible headaches that could come with hosting one of just three pot shops in the entire Eastern United States, Salem officials haven’t forgotten the economic opportunity presented by ATG’s opening. Every customer of the pot shop will receive a brochure from the local chamber of commerce containing coupons for nearby shops and restaurants.
“There is some cross-promotion going on,” Driscoll said. “We have an array of local shops and restaurants where any ATG patron will be able to take advantage of discounts.”
Traffic was a common concern cited Tuesday by people who live or work in downtown Salem.
“You got your witch tourists, you got your American history tourists, and now you have your pot tourists,” said Paige Zaferiou, 31, who has lived in Salem for a year.
She used to live in San Francisco, where there was a wide array of medical marijuana products available to her. She is excited to have those choices in Salem now
“Knowing how much is in an edible, having your options . . . is really nice,” she said.
Jasmine Rose, 22, of Salem, also said she likes “the idea of knowing the ingredients of your product.”
“It would be nice to have that certifiable, safe option,” she said.
Ben Silverstein, 23, who lives in Beverly and works in Salem, said recreational marijuana sales in the city will boost tax revenue for the state.
“Personally, I can’t think of any ill effects,” he said.
“I’ve been anticipating it for a little while ever since voting for it in 2016,” Silverstein said. “The hope was it wouldn’t take so long, but I’m still stoked.”
Eventually, as more marijuana stores open in Massachusetts, Edwards said, ATG will probably drop its appointment system and begin accepting walk-ins — but that transition is unlikely to happen for weeks, if not months.
Edwards noted that ATG was the first medical marijuana dispensary to open in Massachusetts in June 2015 and thanked Salem officials and residents for “being forward-thinking and progressive.”
“We’re certainly proud to have built such a positive relationship with the city over these years,” he said, “and we’re looking forward to opening our doors to recreational customers.”