One year ago Wednesday, thousands of people lined up in the sleet for a chance to be among the first in a century to legally purchase recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.
Twelve months after the first joints and edibles changed hands at shops in Northampton and Leicester, there are 33 cannabis stores in Massachusetts. That’s fewer stores than expected, and the state has collected about one-third the marijuana tax revenue it predicted in the early months.
The rollout has been dogged by a federal corruption investigation into payments cities and towns receive from pot shops, a plodding licensing process, and a struggle to deliver on promises to benefit communities of color hardest hit by the war on drugs.
Yet officials and many observers praise the progress so far, and say the state’s industry, which generated $394 million in sales in its first year, could still fulfill its potential as a $1 billion annual business in a few years.
“I understand the frustration of those who think we’ve moved too slowly,” said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. “But we committed from Day One to do this in a deliberate manner. . . . I was much more concerned about what this industry would look like in 2021 or 2022 than in 2018.”
State and local officials agree that few of the dire warnings from opponents of legalization have come to pass.
“The sun still comes up every morning,” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who last year made the ceremonial first purchase at the New England Treatment Access, or NETA, store in his city, and who says the shop has brought scores of new visitors to his city. “From my perspective, the first year has been nothing but positive.”
Legalized cannabis has also created jobs, employing more than 6,700 Massachusetts residents so far.
Still, frustrations and challenges remain.
In Brookline, where one of Greater Boston’s only recreational pot shops opened in March, residents say the paucity of other nearby shops has led to long lines, traffic problems, and public marijuana consumption.
And for consumers, local restrictions, onerous regulations, and the slow pace of licensing have added up to sparse retail outlets, poor selection, tight purchase limits, and high prices.
“To come in here, and you buy a quarter [ounce] for $100 and some change when you were getting it on the street for $60 — it’s going to drive people back to the black market,” said Al Minor, 46, as he waited Saturday to buy cannabis in Brookline. “More competition is key.”
Some argue that the careful approach in Massachusetts has resulted in a better controlled industry than in other states such as California, where unlicensed storefronts flourish. State regulators have touted that control as they contend with a nationwide outbreak of severe lung illnesses linked mostly to illicit cannabis vapes.
But the slow pace has led to other issues.
Authorities here have had less success steering consumers away from the illicit market. This year, 77 percent of marijuana sales in Massachusetts occurred under the table, according to cannabis research firm BDS Analytics, compared to 58 percent after a year of recreational sales in Colorado, when 322 stores were licensed.
“The intent was to rid Massachusetts of the illicit market, but it’s still here and it’s thriving,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, who feels caution was warranted.
Similarly, Massachusetts’ marijuana tax revenues have disappointed, with the state collecting just $22 million of the $63 million officials expected last fiscal year.
Massachusetts marijuana officials said they’re determined not to rush and risk the kind of regulatory oversights that hobbled the state’s medical marijuana program in its early days. They’re also working to boost small businesses and halt applicants who attempt to circumvent state limits on license ownership by using straw applicants, a problem documented by the Globe Spotlight Team earlier this year.
Hoffman and other regulators blamed much of the delay on bottlenecks at the municipal level. Under Massachusetts law, local officials must approve applicants before they can apply for state licenses.
But a number of communities have demanded large, legally questionable payments from cannabis companies under the auspices of required “host community agreements,” which critics say are a form of legalized bribery that edges out smaller would-be operators. In Fall River, the former mayor was indicted in September on charges of extorting marijuana companies seeking approvals.
The commission in January asked the Legislature for explicit authority to regulate the agreements. Earlier this month, the Globe reported that a federal grand jury convened by US Attorney Andrew Lelling has requested documents from numerous cities and towns related to marijuana approvals.
“The federal grand jury is the single most extraordinary event since legalization back in 2016,” said Jim Borghesani, a cannabis consultant and former spokesman for the legalization campaign. “Local officials are far more cognizant now of what they ask for.”
Cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title said local officials are growing more comfortable with the idea of hosting marijuana businesses.
“You can’t force away fear,” Title said. “Some time had to pass and the earliest dispensaries had to open for them to see that people’s fears about what would happen on the street or to property values or crime” were unfounded.
Some neighbors of cannabis stores have complaints. Residents near NETA are pushing proposals at Brookline’s Town Meeting this week to force NETA and future marijuana stores to reduce their hours and require appointments. One neighbor, Dan Saltzman, said that he’s noticed more people smoking pot near parks and soccer fields.
“Marijuana legalization is the right thing to do,” Saltzman said. “But the way we are selling it is not right.”
NETA said it sends workers to pick up trash and has urged Brookline officials to use some of the money it has paid the town to fund more police patrols in the area.
For all the criticism, many health and police officials believe the state has moved at the right speed, or even too fast. Public health advocates have urged state leaders to add more extensive warning labels, limit product potency and variety, and remove industry leaders from a regulatory advisory board, while predicting a rise in stoned driving.
Dr. Sharon Levy, substance abuse treatment director at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the state has failed to guard against the worst effects of increasing the availability of cannabis. Regulators should limit the most potent products, she said.
“Some of the products the kids are using, like dab pens, have very little relationship to marijuana,” Levy said, referring to potent cannabis extracts. “It’s like calling ketchup a vegetable.”
Jen Flanagan, who holds the cannabis commission’s public health seat, said she hopes the commission will study and address potency in the future.
“In a perfect world, we would’ve had more time, staff, and resources” early on, Flanagan said.
Massachusetts was the first state to mandate that its legal cannabis industry benefit communities that were disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization. So far, just six of 227 licenses granted by the commission have gone to entrepreneurs in the state’s social equity and economic empowerment programs.
“On paper, we have the most comprehensive [state] equity program,” said Shanel Lindsay, a businesswoman on the state’s cannabis advisory board. “Now, we need to dig in to make sure that intent matches up with the reality.”
The commission has moved to expedite applications from disenfranchised entrepreneurs and grant them exclusive access for two years to forthcoming delivery and social consumption licenses, among other efforts.
“There’s no one sweeping change we can make that’s going to address 100 years of a prohibitionist policy that was created to advance a racist agenda and that was followed by racial disparities all the way up until now,” Title said.
Racial discrimination continues to plague marijuana entrepreneurs, said Vanessa Jean-Baptiste, an economic empowerment applicant trying to open cannabis stores dubbed Legal Greens in Brockton and Boston.
“From the municipal level all the way to business owners, they don’t want black people in this industry,” said Jean-Baptiste, who is black. “I really have to fight 10 times harder than other people just to be heard.”
Minor, the consumer in Brookline, said he grew up in Roxbury and shares concerns about the industry becoming too white and corporate — he’d like to have more boutique options from local cultivators.
But on the whole, Minor said, legalization is positive.
“What’s the best part of the market?” he said. “Walking past those police officers and having them not looking at you like you’re doing something wrong, man. . . . It’s change you can see. You know it’s there. It’s tangible.”