A customer pays for cannabis products at Essence Vegas Cannabis Dispensary after the start of recreational marijuana sales began on July 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

With the groundwork laid, Massachusetts cannabis industry likely to take off in 2018

It’s been more than a year since Massachusetts residents legalized recreational marijuana, but there is little outward evidence of the promised changes.

There are no downtown pot cafes. There are no licensed retailers selling cannabis products in storefront windows. Homegrowers remain wary of the social stigma associated with adding marijuana to their gardens, and confused about the rules for doing so.

Despite outward appearances, though, 2017 was a year of progress on the policy front for the new law — from clarifying regulations and optimism about meeting retail deadlines, to resident confidence in growing techniques and normalization.

Sorting through the law

The biggest news of the year happened within the past week: the state’s Cannabis Control Commission approved draft regulations Friday, a week ahead of their deadline, that clarify what activities are and are not legal under the new law.

“I am extremely proud of our work,” Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steven J. Hoffman said, in a statement Friday, “however today is a beginning and not an end; we have more to do to realize our goal of making Massachusetts a model for the nation in this new emerging industry.”

Local officials have been waiting for the regulations with some urgency. Question 4 on the November 2016 ballot may have legalized recreational marijuana, but the resulting law left a litany of questions unanswered.

“I just want something that’s clear,” Ashland Town Manager Michael Herbert said earlier this week. Ashland officials put a moratorium on retail marijuana for the next several months. “Clearness and consistency is really what we’re looking for.”

In a controversial move, state legislators tweaked the language this summer, and in doing so created the Cannabis Control Commission, giving it $5 million and three months to come up with a first draft of regulations. The five-commissioner board was given more than 40 broad topics to tackle and regulate, but the commissioners ended up doubling their scope to 80 policies.

Local officials said they were looking for clarity on things such as identifying and enforcing drugged driving rules, the definition of a serving of marijuana and what constitutes an over-served customer, where and how residents can grow their own, what kinds of retailers can provide or allow marijuana consumption, whether the sale of cannabis can be banned, quality and testing standards, and dozens more subjects.

“When you have a commission like this, you really just don’t know what the regulations are going to look like,” Franklin Deputy Town Administrator Jamie Hellen said before the draft came out. “I think it’s presumptuous to try and predict (the regulations).”

Close to 50 municipalities either voted for, or are currently considering, outright bans on recreational marijuana sales and grow facilities within town or city limits. Dozens more instituted moratoriums, like Ashland and Natick, adopting a wait-and-see approach until the regulatory landscape is more clear.

“What we’re looking for is to have the guidance. We need to know what to do locally,” Natick’s Acting Town Administrator Bill Chenard said Thursday. Without that, he added, “We can’t plan …. we can’t talk about what we want to do.”

Laying the groundwork

Just a few municipalities already have implemented local zoning rules or taxes. Hopedale officials didn’t want to put retail cannabis in the commercial zone, but appeased some residents by allowing it in the industrial zone. Franklin already made a handful of zoning decisions, as well.

“It was clear during the discussion when the planning board met …. that residents wanted to have an opportunity to purchase the product through a retail outlet,” Hopedale Town Administrator Steven Sette said, of Hopedale’s retail marijuana zoning decision.

Now that the commission released draft regulations, residents have a chance to look them over for about a month, before the state kicks off a series of public hearings in February.

A final draft is due March 15 — commissioners said they hope to have it done by March 9 — and the state is supposed to begin accepting applications for recreational marijuana business licenses in April.

“We feel the Cannabis Control Commission is on the right track,” Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council Peter Bernard said, adding that he’s looking for a few tweaks to the proposed regulations.

Another recreational marijuana advocacy group, “Yes on 4,” which put together the recreational cannabis ballot question approved by voters, also supported the draft, with a few tweaks.

If everything goes according to plan, the first pot shops will open July 1.

Consumers try it out

Retail sales of most marijuana products are on pause until summer, but associated business and interest has picked up.

“People are coming out of the closet, so to speak,” Bernard said, of people who smoked marijuana before it was legal, and can now enjoy the drug without fear. “It’s been a great year.”

Many residents tried their hands at gardening almost immediately. Some started gardens inside during the colder weather, and planted gifted cannabis seeds in their backyards in the spring. Others tried to grow the plant to get high, or to relax, and still others to ease medical issues they didn’t feel comfortable going through the medical marijuana process to address.

The non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD can be found on shelves in several stores. Advocates tout its relaxation qualities when used in tinctures, lotions, or when vaped.

Some retailers found they can sell CBD, or cannabidiol, when they can prove to local government officials that the product is made from hemp — not marijuana — and contains only an extremely small percentage of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC.

The year has also seen at least a couple of major cannabis expositions — the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition held at the Boston Hynes Convention Center in October. Earlier this month, the Harvest Cup — that featured a 100-foot joint — was held at the Worcester DCU Center.

In the end, 2017 was a year of laying the regulatory groundwork for what promises to be a very active 2018 in Massachusetts for cannibis merchants, growers and consumers.

By the numbers: Cannabis in Massachusetts

17: Medical marijuana dispensaries currently open

257: Applications for marijuana facilities submitted to the state as of Dec. 15

$44 million to $82 million: Range of estimated tax revenue expected from legalized recreational marijuana in Fiscal 2019

$5 million: Budget granted to the Cannabis Control Commission

110: Pages in the Commission’s draft regulations

$534,167: Requested funding for five CCC commissioner salaries

150+: Communities in Massachusetts, out of 350, that have implemented or are considering a ban or moratorium on recreational marijuana.

Registered cannabis dispensaries in mass.

As of the end of November, there were 17 registered marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, all for medical marijuana. As of Dec. 15, however, there were 257 applications pending for dispensaries.
Location of open medical marijuana dispensaries:
Salem: Alternative Therapy Group. Cultivation facilities in Amesbury
Ayer: Central Ave. Compassionate Care
Quincy: Ermont Inc.
Newton: Garden Remedies Inc. Cultivation facility in Fitchburg
Georgetown: Healthy Pharms, Inc.
Brockton: In Good Health, Inc.
Brookline: New England Treatment Access. Cultivation facility in Franklin
Northampton: New England Treatment Access. Cultivation facility in Franklin
Boston: Patriot Care Corp. Cultivation facility in Lowell
Lowell: Patriot Care Corp
Leicester: Cultivate Holdings Inc.
Hanover: Curaleaf Massachusetts Inc.
Somerville: Revolutionary Clinics II Inc.
Somerville: Sira Naturals Inc.
Cambridge: Sira Naturals Inc.
Bridgewater: Theory Wellness Inc.
Great Barrington: Theory Wellness Inc.

Countdown to legal pot sales

Nov. 8: Massachusetts voters legalize recreational marijuana

July 28: Massachusetts legislature adopts amended recreational marijuana law, creating Cannabis Control Commission
Sept. 11: Cannabis Control Commission meets for the first time
Dec. 29: Cannabis Control Commission draft marijuana regulations are due.

Week of Feb. 5: Public hearings on the draft policies to be held across the state
March 15: Final regulations due. Commissioners are planning to hand in the regulations early, on March 9.
April 1: First day to apply for recreational marijuana business licenses
July 1: First day of business for recreational marijuana shops

Information from Milford Daily News, Mass.

Alison Bosma can be reached on Twitter at @AlisonBosma. State House News Service stories were used in this report.