It took more than two years and several delays for Massachusetts to get from a successful 2016 referendum to the first legal recreational marijuana sales in the eastern United States.
As 2019 approaches, the focus for the state’s cannabis regulators is expected to gradually shift from getting the industry off the ground to expanding it geographically and perhaps into new frontiers, such as social consumption and scientific research into the public health impacts and medicinal benefits of marijuana.
The November launch of the state’s first fully-licensed pot shops , in Northampton and Leicester, brought cheers from customers and long lines outside the stores, even if the openings came well after the original July 1 target date for marijuana sales to debut.
Three more retail stores, in Salem, Wareham and Easthampton, were also granted permission to open their doors in the final weeks of 2018.
Sales of recreational marijuana and related products totaled nearly $9.3 million through the week ending Dec. 16, according to the most recent figures provided by the commission.
MORE PLACES TO SHOP
The slow rollout of retail stores will continue into 2019 and likely pick up steam.
Regulators have issued final retail licenses to stores in Fall River, Hudson, Great Barrington and Pittsfield. Those outlets have crossed most regulatory hurdles and need only to receive a “commence operations” notice from the commission to begin selling recreational pot to customers 21 and over.
The commission has also awarded nearly two dozen provisional retail licenses, with those applicants still awaiting receipt of final licenses and permission to begin selling.
As the volume of stores increases, so will pressure on regulators and merchants to maintain inventory and avoid product shortages that plagued the initial rollout of recreational marijuana in some other legal U.S. states and Canada.
Applications from other would-be pot shops are still being reviewed by the commission, which is also expected to continue granting an array of other licenses to applicants for marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing labs and other businesses.
WHAT ABOUT BOSTON?
Conspicuously absent from the list of retail applicants who have been granted final or provisional licenses are any from Boston.
In fact, the nearest pot shop to the city and its immediate suburbs is in Salem, about a 25-mile (40-kilometer) drive from Boston. All of the other stores that have opened so far are an hour or more from the city.
As a result, more than half of the state’s total population remains without convenient access to legal recreational marijuana, with users in the region more likely to continue purchasing from the underground market.
Mayor Marty Walsh said in a recent interview on WGBH-FM that the city has signed four host community agreements with would-be cannabis companies and that he expects the city’s first retail store to open next year, likely near North Station. The store is owned by Ascend, a company operated by Andrea Cabral, who formerly served as Suffolk County sheriff and as the state’s secretary of public safety.
Not only has Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana, it wants to go further than other states by studying the drug as well.
The Legislature approved language that calls on state regulators to develop a “research agenda” that will lead to understanding of “social and economic trends of marijuana” along with impacts on health and public safety.
Data collection, expected to begin in earnest in the coming months, will be used to study the impact of legalization on “at-risk” individuals, including teenagers; young adults aged 18-25; pregnant and breastfeeding women; and residents of inner-city communities that were disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and the so-called “war on drugs.”
The research agenda also includes the “medicinal benefits” of marijuana, at a time when there is growing pressure on Congress to permit clinical testing of cannabis for possible pharmaceutical use.
The commission has so far received four applications from companies seeking to be authorized as marijuana research facilities.
Under an early draft of marijuana regulations, it was envisioned that Massachusetts could be the first U.S. state to legalize Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes where adult customers could order marijuana products and consume them on the premises.
The proposed social consumption rules were shelved, however, after objections were raised by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, among others.
The commission is expected to revisit the topic in 2019, but it seems unlikely that cannabis cafes will be opening anytime soon — if at all. Obstacles include state laws that prohibit marijuana use in smoking bars and no existing legal process for cities and towns to approve would-be cannabis cafes.