Marijuana cafes one step closer to reality — slowly
Back in December 2017, state cannabis regulators envisioned an economy in which marijuana could be consumed at a wide variety of businesses: restaurants, yoga studios, and movie theaters.
But after a backlash from Governor Charlie Baker, police, and health officials, the Cannabis Control Commission decided to hit pause on licensed “social consumption” businesses.
Now, the commission is poised to take up the issue again, after an advisory panel voted unanimously this week to recommend that regulators allow cannabis “bars” to open. This time, however, the agency is moving forward much more cautiously, contemplating a slow rollout of marijuana cafes and one-off events in a limited number of cities and towns that opt in.
Each of the state’s five cannabis commissioners told the Globe on Thursday that they’re listening to critics’ concerns, particularly about stoned drivers, secondhand smoke, and its effect on employees, and ensuring minorities and other disenfranchised groups benefit from the new industry.
“If we do go forward with it, we’re going to do it as carefully as we can,” commission chairman Steven Hoffman said.
Hoffman, Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan, and Commissioner Britte McBride said they have not decided how they will vote.
Commissioner Shaleen Title, on the other hand, has long supported allowing such businesses as a place for renters, tourists, public housing residents, and others to have a legal place to buy limited quantities and consume. Consuming in public is not permitted, and violators could face a $100 fine. She also has advocated for allowing the licenses to go exclusively to small businesses and those owned by people who were disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs.
Title said it was clear from the Cannabis Advisory Board’s discussions that the debate has evolved from the question of whether to allow social consumption, to how to do it right.
“Everyone who is paying attention knows that these events are already happening,” Title said. “We can regulate them in a way that implements the vision that the state law intended, encouraging safe practices while promoting diversity and economic justice for local business owners.”
McBride said she believes that social consumption establishments, if approved, shouldn’t be licensed until lawmakers implement stronger antistoned driving laws, such as those recently proposed by Baker. That measure was modeled on recommendations by a special commission that included police, prosecutors, civil liberties advocates, and defense lawyers.
“We do need to be talking about drugged driving and then talk about social consumption,” McBride said. She declined to say which types of laws would satisfy her desire for action on that topic, leaving “that to the Legislature.”
While drunkenness can be readily detected in a roadside breath test, biological tests for marijuana can only detect past use, not current impairment.
Under Baker’s proposal, suspected stoned drivers who refuse police demands for a biological test would lose their driver’s licenses for at least six months — the same penalty for alleged drunk drivers who refuse a breathalyzer. The measure is opposed by civil liberties advocates, who say it would punish innocent marijuana consumers.
Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, an advisory board member, said he still has deep reservations about social consumption businesses. Still, he was happy the advisory board supported public safety measures, including local compliance checks for underage customers, mandatory reporting to police of criminal activity, and signs posted stating the penalties for operating under the influence. Stoned driving, he said, is his biggest concern.
“I urge the Legislature to move quickly on it so that we’re prepared but we’re not there yet, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to add to the issue,” Carmichael said on Thursday. “Not to say that people don’t do that now.”
Commissioners Kay Doyle and Flanagan said they’re also concerned about stoned driving. Flanagan said the issue is especially worrisome in less-urban areas with limited public transit and ride-sharing services.
She said she doubted social consumption businesses would be cheaper to start up than other marijuana stores, as advocates had claimed. She said a cannabis lounge she visited last June, Barbary Coast Collective in San Francisco, required an impressive — but expensive — air ventilation system to keep the business largely smoke-free.
“The question I have is, ‘How are they going to afford that?’” Flanagan said, referring to applicants from disadvantaged groups. “I’m not going to put that false hope up there.”
Title disagreed, saying social consumption and event licenses offer a more realistic pathway into the industry for minorities and people who were harmed by disproportionate enforcement of drug laws.
The commission will draft regulations by May and receive public comments before voting on final regulations in June.