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Massachusetts marijuana cafes get preliminary OK

(PABLO PORCIUNCULA BRUNE/AFP/Getty Images)

Licensed marijuana cafes could eventually open in Massachusetts, after the state Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday voted to approve a “social consumption” pilot program in up to a dozen Massachusetts cities and towns.

Proponents called the commission’s 3-2 vote a historic step toward normalizing marijuana as part of the Massachusetts economy, while making it easier and safer to consume the drug legally. And rolling out the businesses in a limited fashion, they argued, will allow the state to collect data on any problems and adjust its rules accordingly before they’re allowed to proliferate statewide.

“There is a strong desire to have this,” commission chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters following the vote. “I believe it’s the will of the people.”

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But any cannabis lounge ribbon-cuttings are likely a long way off.

Massachusetts legislators would have to tweak state law for the pilot to move forward, and marijuana officials must write and approve detailed rules with requirements for ventilation systems, dosing, and preventing stoned driving. A commission vote on those regulations could happen by the end of the month, but the timeline for legislative action is uncertain.

Still, for tourists, renters, and those who live in public housing, such facilities could, for the first time, provide a legal place to consume a legal product — hotels and apartments typically ban smoking, and public consumption of marijuana is illegal.

“Right now... they don’t have a place to go, or they’re going to unregulated events that are happening all around the state,” said commissioner Shaleen Title, who drafted the proposal along with Hoffman and a working group of seven local officials from around the state. “We’ve been asked by the consumers and by public safety officials to create a regulated [system] where there’s some safety measures in place, there’s some public health measures in place, and it will benefit the state to have those.”

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In addition to cannabis cafes, the new policy would also permit event organizers to apply for one-day licenses allowing them to serve pot to adult guests for on-site consumption, opening the door to cannabis-enhanced concerts, weddings, and more. Such events could not also serve alcohol.

Advocates cheered the commission’s decision to initially only issue social consumption licenses to small-scale, locally-owned cannabis farmers and processors, plus minorities and other groups that were disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs or will help those who were.

They said that the event licenses in particular could provide disenfranchised entrepreneurs struggling to raise capital a foothold in the state’s lucrative marijuana business, which has so far been dominated by large, wealthy operators.

“I’m really happy that there’s viable pathway now for small businesses from disproportionately harmed communities,” Title said.

Commissioners Britte McBride and Jen Flanagan voted against the proposal, citing concerns about stoned driving.

“The potential for harm outweighs the potential for good,” McBride said, arguing that the commission should delay consideration of the licenses until a proposed law stiffening penalties for cannabis-impaired drivers is enacted.

Flanagan added that she is worried the commission’s policy will give “false hope” to those hoping to start social consumption companies, when in reality the policy may never come to fruition.

To address concerns about impaired driving, the proposal approved Thursday would limit the quantity of marijuana each patron could consume and mandate that servers at social consumption businesses and events be trained on detecting impairment. Operators would also need to get approval from the commission and their municipalities on a plan for giving patrons options to get home without driving.

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The plan attempts to quiet any political blowback by containing social consumption businesses to pot-friendly cities and towns whose leaders are eager to be pioneers in the space. That’s a frustration to some advocates, who argue marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol and should not be regulated more strictly — bars, after all, are pervasive in Massachusetts.

But other proponents noted that the commission’s initial attempt to authorize a greater variety of social consumption businesses around the state in 2018 fizzled amid criticism from the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, which called the facilities a public safety risk and insisted the agency should focus first on licensing marijuana retail shops. They said the commission’s current, more cautious approach gives the idea a greater chance of succeeding.

“Are they being cautious? Sure — but based on the feedback they’ve gotten and how difficult this is going to be regardless, it makes a lot of sense,” said Kamani Jefferson, president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council.

Baker earlier this week signaled openness to the pilot program, saying a limited initial rollout “makes a lot of sense.”

Under the commission’s plan, cannabis cafes could only open in a dozen municipalities whose elected officials opt in. That will take a change in state law, which currently says cities and towns must hold community-wide referendums asking local voters to approve such facilities. (Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees elections, has said the language of that provision is unworkable as written, and has discouraged municipalities from organizing votes.)

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The five municipalities that participated in developing the regulations — Amherst, North Adams, Provincetown, Somerville, and Springfield — would get the first crack at participating, with the remaining spots to be filled with cities and towns that add geographic and demographic diversity.

Amherst town councilor Alisa Brewer, a member of the working group, said her community will weigh the possible risks of stoned driving and overindulgence against the potential economic and racial equity benefits.

“I believe Amherst may be interested,” she wrote in an email. “The voters of the Commonwealth agreed that marijuana should be treated like alcohol when Question 4 passed. ...This limited pilot program will enable us to see how regulated social consumption of marijuana varies from regulated social consumption of alcohol.”

If the proposal is implemented, Massachusetts will become one of just a few jurisdictions in the country to allow social consumption. Alaska’s marijuana law permits marijuana lounges, as do certain municipalities in California, plus Denver and Las Vegas.

The Massachusetts proposal would only allow marijuana to be smoked outdoors, in segregated areas only open to those 21 and older. Inside social consumption facilities — whose operators would be pre-screened by the commission before seeking local approval — patrons could vape the drug in ventilated rooms or consume limited quantities of cannabis-infused edibles. Any unfinished pot products would have to be left behind, as take-out is banned under the plan.

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Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.