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As of Sunday, it’s legal to buy marijuana but don’t count on finding a cannabis store

  • Chris Hubbard talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Hubbard talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Hubbard talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liz Cashman talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liz Cashman talks about the July 1 roll out date for recreational cannabis. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Warner talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Warner talks about the July 1 roll out date for recreational cannabis. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Hubbard talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Miller talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emma Cook and Hannah Viederman talk about the July 1 rollout for recreational cannabis. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Lafond talks about the July 1 roll out date for recreational cannabis. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Lafond talks about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emma Cook and Hannah Viederman talk about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emma Cook and Hannah Viederman talk about the July first roll out date for recreational Cannabis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Hubbard of Florence, who runs Hubbard Glass, works on a water pipe in his studio in Florence. He predicts buying marijuana will eventually be like buying beer. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. Above, canabis growing at the dispensary. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS

  • Incense Haze X Chem cannabis flower is displayed June 27, 2018 at the INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cannabis grows June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lead cultivator Matt Livermore bottoms cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The interior of INSA dispensary is shown June 27, 2018 in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Propagation manager Janel Cannonier trims cannabis plants to direct the growth hormones to budding sites June 27, 2018 at INSA dispensary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Master Kush indica flowers 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. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A variety of marijuana-infused products are shown June 27, 2018 at New England Treatment Access, or NETA, in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • 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. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The exterior of New England Treatment Access, or NETA, is shown June 27, 2018 in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 05, 2018

Recreational cannabis sales for adults 21 and over become legal Sunday, but in Hampshire County not one store will be open to sell it.

In fact, across the entire state only one license has been granted so far by the state Cannabis Control Commission — to a cultivator in Milford. When stores will actually open up in western Massachusetts is, well, a little hazy.

The five-person commission has been slow to begin issuing retail licenses because it says it wants to “get it right.” Priority will be given to previously established medical cannabis dispensaries and applicants from the “economic empowerment program,” which aims to give opportunities to minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by arrests and incarceration for marijuana-related incidents, members say.

“It’s more important to us to do it right,” chairman Steven Hoffman said. “It’s going to roll out a little bit more slowly perhaps than people expected.”

Further slowing the process, the commission announced Tuesday that it would first need to license a product testing facility before issuing retail licenses.

Expectations from some in the community are low.

“With all the bureaucracy for the first time opening of these stores, I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Liz Cashman of Northampton.

To apply for a license, a complete application must be submitted to the state. Once it has been deemed complete, the applicant undergoes a background check. Next, the commission asks the city or town where the applicant plans to open shop to see whether the business has met all local zoning requirements and entered into a host-community agreement with the municipality. Finally, once the background check is passed and community agreement reached, the application is voted on by the commission.

The licenses granted by the commission are only provisional; the facilities and stores must be built and inspected by the commission for regulatory requirements before they can begin sales.

Best shots locally

The commission has received two complete applications for licenses in Hampshire County as of June 5, the last date a count was posted by the commission.

One of those applications came from New England Treatment Access, or NETA, western Massachusetts’ longest-operating medical dispensary on Conz Street in Northampton. The other was sent in by Easthampton’s medical dispensary counterpart, INSA.

The two dispensaries are shaping up to be Hampshire County’s best chance for recreational marijuana sales, but both are still waiting for the state to grant their licenses. When that will be is anyone’s guess.

“Once we have the green light, we will be all ready to go,” said Norton Arbalaez, director of governmental affairs for NETA.

Arbalaez said NETA is hoping to begin recreational sales by August at the latest, but in Easthampton, while INSA is hoping to be up and running in July, CEO Mark Zatyrka said there have been indications from the commission that licenses might not be granted until September, or maybe even as late as January 2019.

“We’re just as eager to get open as the community is,” Zatyrka said. “We receive calls and emails from people every 10 minutes asking if we’ll be open July 1.”

Zatyrka said that the uncertainty around the licenses makes it difficult to prepare. He said INSA is looking to hire staff to handle the demand for recreational cannabis, but can’t start paying full salaries now if it still might be months before recreational use sales can begin.

In Easthampton, a recreational dispensary must first receive a license from the state before applying for a special permit from the city, according to city planner Jeffrey Bagg. Zatyrka said INSA has been working with the city and should be able to receive its city permit as soon as the dispensary receives its state license. That way, INSA will be able to start recreational sales right away.

Zatyrka said the dispensary is expecting to see four to five times more demand when recreational sales start, based on data and trends from other states that have legalized recreational cannabis.

“When we open for recreational consumers our full product line will be available for them on day one,” Zatyrka said. “The first week, I think will be an unusually high turnout, whereas things will probably simmer after that.”

Arbalaez said that NETA is also preparing for increased demand, and has been doing so for nearly two years since the vote to make recreational sales legal in 2016. The company previously employed 300 people for its medical cannabis operations and now is up to 450 in preparation for recreational sales.

“We’ve invested heavily in people and cultivation infrastructure, we’ve more than doubled our production and we’ve added about a hundred new employees,” Arbalaez said. “We’re taking this very seriously.”

Akin to beer

Chris Hubbard, of Florence, runs Hubbard Glass, creating intricate glasswork that includes smoking apparatuses and other cannabis-related glasswork, such as grow lights.

“Yeah, I want to go to a store,” Hubbard said. “I want to try it out so I can walk in and legally buy something I have been put in jail for before in my life.”

Hubbard said there’s an underground network of cannabis users in western Massachusetts who have long grown the plant themselves, creating high quality and individualized strains. Because of that, Hubbard said, he likely won’t go to retail shops often because he doesn’t expect their quality to be as high as those specialized growers.

Eventually, however, he thinks cannabis will become akin to beer in that it will be available in large stores for low prices with varying quality. But there also will be legal specialized growers who will be similar to breweries that offer higher quality, more expensive beer.

“Right now, people are seeing a gold rush,” Hubbard said. “I have a feeling that eventually it will be more like beer. But for now, retail licensing will satisfy a much-needed group of people who can’t access marijuana.”

Those people, he said, include those who don’t have connections, people who are leery of breaking the law and people who might use cannabis for medicinal purposes but don’t want to be put on medical lists while the plant is still federally illegal.

Emma Cook, of Williamsburg, said she’s hoping the burgeoning cannabis industry will be regulated like alcohol. Specifically, she said, she hopes there will be the same kind of common-sense education around it: how to use cannabis safely and responsibly, the effects it can have on people and the risks of driving under the influence of it.

Cook said the people she meets in college who are buying cannabis off the black market probably won’t be able to afford cannabis sold in dispensaries and, furthermore, don’t care about the quality.

College student Joe Warner, and his father, Carl Warner, of Northampton, said they don’t really know what to expect, but they’re interested to see how the shops affect the area when they open.

“I don’t think it will be like beer right away because it just isn’t as socially acceptable right now, but maybe 15 years from now, who knows?” Joe said. “The big thing, I think, will be edibles or things for people who don’t want to smoke.”

Carl said he’ll be interested to check out the stores, largely because he hasn’t purchased cannabis since he was younger and he hasn’t been around it much since then.

“I will go at least once to check it out,” Carl said. “I’ll see what they have and I’ll probably buy something just because it has been so long.”

Shop offerings

When INSA and NETA are finally able to open for recreational cannabis sales, both dispensaries say they are ready with a wide variety of products.

“At NETA, customers will find world-class cannabis flowers in various strains and the full suite of cannabis concentrates including wax, shatter, kief and hash,” Arbalaez said. “They will find over 125 different types of marijuana infused products.”

Arbalaez said NETA is focused on giving customers a wide array of options, particularly alternatives to smoking.

“There are many people who use cannabis products, even on the recreational side, for medicinal purposes. We offer creams and balms that have no psychotropic effects,” he said. “Many of the early customers might be people that otherwise qualify for medical cannabis, but can’t access it for a variety of reasons.”

Both dispensaries said they will have separate lines and separate products for medical patients and recreational-use customers, but said they are working to offer uniform products for both.

The state requires medical dispensaries to set aside 35 percent of their product offerings for medical patients.

Zatyrka said that INSA plans to set aside more than the mandate and might have products available for medical patients that are not offered to recreational-use customers, particularly products that are high in the pain-relieving CBD compound found in marijuana, but without psychotropic effects or the high that many recreational users are looking for.

“We’re also working to create uniform dosing for recreational and medical products,” Zatyrka said.

State law has different dosage requirements for things like edibles for medical and recreational cannabis, but Zatyrka said INSA wants to provide reliable dosing for both patients and recreational users.

Medical patients have expressed concern in recent months that the upcoming legalization of recreational use sales would result in shortages because it will take a while for growers to ramp up to meet demand, particularly with cultivators, too, waiting for licensing from the state. The bottom line?

“We are doing everything we can to mitigate the effect on our existing medical patients,” Arbalaez said.

Waiting to see

As shops prepare for increased demand whenever they are able to open for recreational-use sales, Valley residents are cautiously waiting to see how everything pans out.

“I don’t really know what to expect when the stores start opening,” said Hannah Viederman of Northampton.

Cashman, of Northampton, said she’s not much of a smoker, but she has friends who are waiting impatiently for the first stores to open. She said for her friends, retail locations are appealing because they will have set hours and regulated products, providing reliability to customers in a way the black market does not.

Chris Lafond, a Northampton resident, said that as long as there are safety regulations, he thinks the stores opening up will be a good thing for the state, especially financially. He says he hopes that stores will cut into illegal sales and the revenue from licensing and taxing cannabis will be a boon for education and transportation funding in the state.

“My days of smoking pot are long over,” Lafond said. “But I’ll go in and check it out.”

Jim Miller, of Northampton, said he’s not a cannabis user, but he supports the stores opening up.

“Unlike alcohol, I’ve never seen someone on marijuana get angry or violent or anything,” Miller said. “So, I’m for it being legal. I may even try it myself.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.