The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission calls them “marijuana-forward” communities: cities and towns that have welcomed the state’s newly legal recreational pot industry with open arms.
At a forum in downtown Boston Tuesday, leaders from eight of those municipalities had a message for local officials elsewhere grappling with the burgeoning industry.
The bottom-line: The sky won’t fall if a pot shop opens up in town.
“One [marijuana retailer] is renting a storefront and opening between two toy stores on our Main Street,” said Edward Abrahams, a selectman from Great Barrington, where four marijuana companies have signed deals to open. “People keep asking, ‘Isn’t that crazy?’ And I keep asking, ‘Why?’ You won’t see the product from the window, the name of the store won’t give away what’s inside, children aren’t allowed inside, and they can’t give away the product.”
“You can bring a child into a liquor store. You can bring your child into Rite-Aid while you buy opioids with a prescription, and nobody has a problem with that,” he added. “We just aren’t worried.”
The forum, held in the law library at the John Adams Courthouse, included local officials from Amherst, Framingham, Great Barrington, Holyoke, Hudson, Northampton, and Somerville. It was organized by Britte McBride, a member of the cannabis commission.
For three hours, officials discussed the challenges and opportunities presented in the nascent recreational marijuana sector.
Many Massachusetts cities and towns have imposed bans or moratoriums on marijuana firms, while others have come under fire for pressuring pot operators to pay excessive fees in exchange for local approval.
But the panel discussions featuring local leaders from across the state posed a stark contrast to the perception that local communities are impeding the opening of recreational pot shops. Massachusetts Municipal Association executive director Geoff Beckwith noted that many local moratoriums on marijuana companies will expire at the end of the year, which he said would result in roughly 70 percent of the state’s 351 municipalities allowing at least some cannabis companies.
While some communities have isolated marijuana stores and cultivators in remote industrial parks, Abrahams and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said their local governments treat cannabis firms no differently from other businesses.
“We have put in place zoning that essentially treats cannabis like any other industry,” said Narkewicz, whose city hosts one of the first two recreational marijuana stores approved to open in the state. “If you’re in a zone that allows retail, and you want to open a coffee shop, or a dry cleaners, or a cannabis retail shop, you will go through the same process.”
The officials noted that marijuana companies also bring financial benefits: municipalities can impose a 3 percent local tax on retail marijuana sales, plus a 3-percent-of-revenue fee on each firm.
Mindful of that potential windfall, municipal leaders made direct appeals to the prospective operators in the audience, touting their relaxed zoning rules, cheap electricity rates, and abundant real estate.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse offered perhaps the most aggressive pitch. His administration has an ambitious plan to fund a new industrial “renaissance” with marijuana money, he said. “We want to go from the ‘Paper City’ to the rolling paper city,” Morse quipped, referring to Holyoke’s former status as a paper manufacturing hub. “We have 1.5 million square feet of vacant mill space in the downtown, and a significant chunk of that is now under option by cannabis companies.”
The state commission has long been at pains to avoid the appearance that it was pushing municipalities to allow cannabis businesses — cities and towns, the talking point went, have the right to determine their own marijuana futures.
But the forum trained a spotlight on local leaders who have had positive experiences with cannabis firms in their communities.
One possible reason: Advocates have said it’s increasingly clear that issues at the municipal level — including the proliferation of bans and moratoriums, large payments sought in host community agreement negotiations, and restrictive zoning rules that leave few properties open for marijuana tenants — are combining to favor established, wealthy operators.
At the event, Somerville’s marijuana licensing system was held up as a potential solution for other communities.
That city has promised to approve equal numbers of established medical marijuana firms and companies owned by local residents or by state-designated “economic empowerment” companies — those that are either led by, employ, or benefit communities that had high rates of arrests for drug crimes.