With legal marijuana sales kicking off in Massachusetts in less than four months, there is still infrastructure to be put into place. But before that, the state’s regulatory system needed to be finalized. There were some tense moments for stakeholders on all sides while drafting of the rules was in progress, but the Cannabis Control Commission in Massachusetts has finally written the rules in stone, a week ahead of the March 15 deadline.
The Commission voted unanimously to adopt the new regulations. And according to Steve Brown, a reporter for New England Public Radio, backers of the 2016 referendum that legalized recreational marijuana are “generally pleased with the regulations.”
According to Brown, political director of the Marijuana Policy Project of Massachusetts, Will Luzier said, "I think the Commission has done a laudable job in making sure that the regulations are in place in a timely manner, and for the most part they seem to be very workable regulations."
There are four key modifications to the original regulations, according to Brown.
Most notably, and to the disappointment of many, the rules ended any thoughts of home delivery services and social consumption establishments. Also, dispensaries will be required to set aside inventory for registered medical marijuana patients to prevent recreational sales from draining their supply. Additionally, grows will be limited to 100,000-square-feet (2.3-acre) to prevent excess inventory which could end up on the black market. And finally, anyone convicted of trafficking hard drugs will be barred from working in the state’s cannabis industry.
Opponents of social consumption convinced the commission to start out slow and get the brick and mortar businesses up and running before they consider cannabis cafes.
“The hold off on social consumption in public establishments came following an outcry from Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and many members of the state Legislature,” says Brown. “The Commission initially said they would issue licenses to businesses where patrons would be allowed to consume cannabis on-premises.”
Home delivery was initially approved in December, but the commission isn’t ready to tackle that issue just yet either and will revisit it in the future.
Brown says, “that discussion will take place after more data are compiled and input has been received from the Cannabis Advisory Board in October, with a decision made by February.”
Protections For Patients
Many of the medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts will also begin selling recreational products come July. Patient advocates were afraid that recreational sales would deplete supplies, forcing patients who have had access to legal marijuana since 2015 to go without their medicine.
Dispensaries are now required to set aside 35 percent of their product, or a six-month average of their medical marijuana sales, for registered patients.
Grows Cut Down
Before changes were made to the rules, there was no limit to the size of a growing operation. Opponents argued that this could create a situation in which a grower ends up harvesting more product than it can sell through legal channels.
Brown says that the 100,000-square-foot cap set by the commission will not only discourage black market sales, it could “discourage huge agri-cannabis companies from forming and taking hold of the market.”
A tiered system has been set up to allow for different size grows. Cultivators will be required to decide how much product they plan to grow. To renew their license at the same tier each year, a grower would have to have sold 70 percent of what was grown or be bumped down to the next lower tier.
Anyone convicted of trafficking hard drugs is essentially barred from industry under the new regulations.
“This was the most passionate discussion by the commission members over changes to the regulations,” says Brown. “Commissioner Britte McBride, an attorney, proposed that given the fact the U.S. Justice Department has repealed the Cole Memo, the Obama-era guidance that allowed states to set up legal cannabis industries despite marijuana being federally banned, it would be best to prohibit convicted drug traffickers (other than those found guilty of trafficking in marijuana) from working in the new industry.”
McBride's argument, according to Brown, was that to allow convicted traffickers to take part in the regulated industry might attract unwanted attention from federal prosecutors.
“Commission Chair Steven Hoffman and member Shaleen Title, who is also a lawyer, disagreed, saying it was unfair to prohibit someone who had paid their debt to society from finding work in the new industry,” Brown added.
Convicted drug traffickers are, however, under the new law, allowed to work for a marijuana business if they have no direct contact with any cannabis product.
Countdown To Launch
Commission Chair Steve Hoffman said shortly after the commission's vote, "We need to make sure we have all of our staff in place. We need to make sure that our technology is in place. We need to continue to collaborate with the cities and towns around the state to make sure they're comfortable and that our process works with their process. I wouldn't call any of those roadblocks. It's just things that we have to continue to work on between now and July first."
Hoffman is optimistic about the timeline. He told the State House News Service, “I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of building our staff and building our technology, but I think we have a good foundation based upon these regulations, so I am confident. Our intent is to have a go on July first and we are hitting all of the deadlines that we have in the legislation, so I’m feeling good about that.”
The license application process will begin April 1.