Editorial: Quicken the pace for legal pot sales

  • Master Kush indica flowers, center, and a variety of marijuana-infused products including Dose chocolate bars and nugget, Wishing Well tinctures and Upside capsules are displayed June 27, 2018 at New England Treatment Access, or NETA, in Northampton.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Now that July 1 has passed without any legal sales of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, we hope the pace quickens to license businesses so they can take advantage of the retail opportunities approved by a majority of the state’s voters nearly 20 months ago.

We understand the need for a thorough licensing process that allows for background checks of prospective retailers, ensures the safety of consumers and takes into account local zoning bylaws that regulate where pot shops may operate.

However, we are surprised that after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission in early March approved regulations governing the recreational marijuana marketplace, it did not license a single retailer by the informal target date of July 1. In fact, the only state license issued by that date was for a cultivation facility in Milford.

The process has multiple layers because as part of the state licensing, local officials must agree to a host-community agreement with a prospective pot shop and certify that it has met local zoning requirements.

Last week, a further roadblock surfaced before recreational marijuana may legally be sold — the state still has not licensed an independent testing laboratory. State law requires that all marijuana be tested and approved by a lab before it is sold.

In addition to uncertainty about state licensing, some towns still are establishing a process to evaluate applicants for marijuana businesses. In Amherst, for example, Town Meeting in November voted to allow up to eight retail establishments and adopted the 3 percent local tax.

However, nearly eight months later, the town has yet to sign any host-community agreements, despite interest expressed by several businesses that want to enter the recreational pot marketplace. Among them is RISE Amherst, the only company now licensed to sell medical marijuana in town.

Tom Reidy, a lawyer with Bacon/Wilson in Amherst who represents RISE, said last week that it wants town officials to quickly specify how they will evaluate applicants. “Really, what we’re looking for is the most certainty we can get from the town in laying out the rules,” he said.

Select Board member Constance Kruger expressed concern that without such a policy, the town, in effect, is imposing a moratorium on the start of recreational sales. Legalizing marijuana was approved by nearly 75 percent of the voters in Amherst.

We urge the Select Board, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Economic Development Director Geoff Kravitz this summer to quickly establish the ground rules for approving local applicants, so they can get in line for state licenses.

Meanwhile, the delays are jeopardizing opportunities for some entrepreneurs who had hoped to take advantage of a potentially lucrative market in Hampshire and Franklin counties, where a majority of voters in every city and town favored legalizing recreational pot in the November 2016 vote on Question 4.

Easthampton is among the area communities that were ready for the July 1 start of sales, if the state had issued any business licenses. The city approved zoning bylaws in March, capped the number of retail licenses at six and established a 3 percent local tax for recreational marijuana, the maximum allowed by state law.

Karima Rizk, of Easthampton, said in March that she hoped to open a cannabis cafe for social consumption, and praised the city’s bylaws for being among the most progressive in the state. More recently, however, Rizk said uncertainty about state licensing had changed her plans.

“We are hitting the ‘pause button’ on Cafe Vert’s immediate plans to proceed with licensing and permitting,” Rizk wrote in an email, adding that she is “restrategizing” a fundraising plan to secure a site for her cafe. “Likely these activities will resume in the fall/winter, once there is more clarity on social consumption licensing.”

Some communities are counting on the revenue that will produced by taxing recreational marijuana sales. (Medical marijuana is not taxed.) Easthampton, for example, is considering a resolution that would designate half of that revenue for a fund providing tax relief for seniors 65 and older, after city voters in May approved a new $109 million school.

We hope that the Cannabis Control Commission is true to the word of its chairman, Steven Hoffman, who said last week it will now steadily work its way through the dozens of applications awaiting action. It is time to satisfy the will of the voters by licensing pot shops to open.