Massachusetts Issues Cannabis Retail Licenses in Northampton, Leicester

(Mohit Singh/Unsplash)

The first recreational cannabis licenses in Massachusetts have now been granted—but would-be customers will still have to wait a few weeks before the stores are open for business.

On Thursday, regulators at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission voted to grant four final licenses to adult-use cannabis businesses, issuing one to a Northampton retailer and three to cannabis company in Leicester. Sales, however, are still on hold until the shops pass final inspections—and until the state licenses its first testing laboratory.

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The new license holders are New England Treatment Access, which was awarded a retail license for its medical cannabis dispensary in Northampton, and Cultivate Holdings, which was granted licenses to cultivate, process, and sell cannabis in Leicester.

“It’s a big milestone, but you know it’s going to be an even bigger one when the stores actually open,” said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the commission. “I think we’re weeks away.”

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Once open, the Massachusetts shops would be the first legal retailers of adult-use cannabis in the eastern United States. Maine, which also legalized cannabis for adult use in 2016, has delayed the launch of its voter-approved retail market. And while both Vermont and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational use and home cultivation, neither allows retail sales.

Massachusetts’ retail market was initially expected to launch in July, but licensing issues—particularly at the local level—have delayed the rollout. Thursday’s move marks major progress, but as Boston Globe reporter Dan Adams explains, there are still a number of boxes to check before legal sales can begin:

Before any shops can open, they must pass another final inspection before getting a “commence full operations” notice and beginning sales.

And perhaps most significantly, the shops must wait until a testing laboratory wins a final license from the commission because all marijuana products must be tested for purity and potency before sale. That won’t happen for another two weeks at the earliest, and even then, the labs won’t be able to start recreational operations immediately.

To open, marijuana stores must also receive waivers from health officials exempting them from medical marijuana rules, such as a regulation stipulating that only registered patients can enter the dispensary. And they’ll need permission from the Department of Public Health to transfer products from the medical marijuana system to the adult-use system overseen by the commission, which requires operators to attach ID tags to every cannabis plant and electronically track all products, from seed to sale.

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One of the five Massachusetts commissioners, Shaleen Title, abstained from voting on the final licenses Thursday, citing her concerns over host community agreements the companies signed with Leicester and Northampton officials.

Title has been vocal in her bid to crack down on municipalities that demand compensation from cannabis businesses beyond the parameters allowed by state law. A proposal by Title that the panel review the legality of all signed community agreements was previously rejected by the four other commissioners.

Following the vote, Title said on Twitter that “I respect our policy not to review these agreements, so I didn’t vote no, but I could not vote yes. I have a legal obligation to ensure these companies are compliant with the law. And I specifically was appointed to ensure the social justice aspects of the law are implemented.”

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Commissioners sought assurances that patients registered with the state’s medical marijuana program would not be forced to compete with recreational customers. The stores are required to set aside at least 35 percent of their inventory for medical marijuana patients.

Norton Arbelaez, director of governmental affairs for New England Treatment Access, said the store would form a separate line for medical marijuana patients to avoid having them wait in any long lines that might develop when recreational marijuana first becomes available.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.