The City-Wide Waiting Game for Weed

marijuanaPhoto by Claire Vial.

What the Path Forward Looks Like for Hopeful Recreational Marijuana Dispensaries

After nearly two years of legislative discussion and preparation, the day that recreational marijuana advocates in Massachusetts have been waiting for … well, sort of arrived.

July 1 was the first day that recreational dispensaries could open, but the state didn’t even announce its first license recipient until June 21. Meanwhile, close to 200 of Massachusetts’s 351 cities and towns have already banned retail shops in their municipalities, the Boston Globe reports. Some have gone as far as to permanently ban retail, while others, including Somerville, have resorted to enacting moratoriums—temporary prohibitions to buy officials more time to hash out matters like zoning and legislation.

A large chunk of the moratoriums expired on July 1, but Somerville opted for one that extends until December. City officials, however, say they hope to have policies sorted out long before the moratorium officially ends, ideally before the end of summer. The city aims to start accepting applications in the fall, according to city spokesperson Jaclyn Rossetti.

Still, local activists found the decision for a moratorium in Somerville, especially one with a December deadline, a big surprise, including cannabis co-op owner Eric Schwartz.

“To have the people vote over 70 percent yes on Question 4 [in support of legalization] and then have 9 out of 11 [aldermen] vote on a moratorium to postpone that rollout … yes, that was surprising,” Schwartz recalls. “It seemed like a vote that risked being out of touch with the constituency.”

Somerville’s moratorium isn’t necessarily a cut-and-dry case of local officials acting against what their constituents want, though. First-term Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen, one of two aldermen who voted against the moratorium, argues that zoning regulations need to be in place before shops open, but emphasizes that the yet-to-be-formed regulations are long overdue.

“You can’t just have it be legal with no local policy whatsoever, but the issue for me is that I think the board should’ve acted on this a long time ago,” Ewen-Campen says. “The residents want it, it’s our job to provide policies and regulations, and I think it should be fast tracked.”

As the moratorium stretches past July 1, concerns have risen about how it will affect hopeful recreational dispensaries. Potential small business owners are essentially in limbo as they wait to apply for a license and to see what zoning policies the city comes up with. Such local policies ultimately affect the nascent industry more than city officials might care to admit, Schwartz argues.

“We’ll see how this plays out locally in Somerville, but what we’re seeing at the municipal level even across the Boston area … [is] larger players are able to come in, have the time and capital to do a lot of the lobbying efforts, and try to loosen up those [zoning] restrictions,” Schwartz says.

The Path Forward for Recreational Dispensaries

Although a David and Goliath-esque battle between smaller, localized businesses and bigger brands for turf is somewhat hypothetical at this point, some worry that adult-use entrepreneurs will have to scramble for local traction while more established local medical dispensaries expand easily into the adult-use market.

The state is granting existing medical dispensaries a faster review process for launching recreational sales, according to city public meeting notes, and has “restricted local governments from using zoning to prohibit the change in use from RMD to adult-use facility.”

Director of Planning George Proakis explains that, although zoning discussions focus on making smaller, local businesses feel that they can be a part of the industry, it’s likely that many existing dispensaries will be interested in offering both recreational and medical marijuana.

That being said, it won’t be as easy as clearing out a section of the medical dispensary for adult-use inventory.

Despite the state rules allowing expedited application processes for medical facilities, Somerville has established that any dispensary looking to expand into the adult-use market will not simply “skip the line” on the process, according to the public meeting notes, and will likely have to go through whatever process the city ultimately lands on to get a recreational license.

Existing dispensaries’ locations and operations were decided based on medicinal status, and it’s likely that another rigorous process awaits any dispensary looking to secure a license for selling adult-use products—which, for medical dispensary leader Sira Naturals CEO Mike Dundas, is welcomed.

“We’re waiting to see what that process looks like and how it unfolds,” Dundas tells Scout regarding any potential expansion into adult-use sales in Somerville. “If the zones are written in a way that would allow our facility to engage in adult-use sales, we would presumably apply for an adult-use retail license and go through the licenser process.”

After being one of a few dispensaries to get the green light on a dispensary license in 2013, Sira (then known as Sage Naturals) quickly began organizing community meetings outside of its Milford homebase and getting to know local officials in the city, and eventually expanded with dispensaries in Cambridge, Needham, and Somerville. On June 21, Sira’s Milford location received the first state license for adult-use marijuana.

“We’ve got these facilities, we did it, and we started by rubbing two sticks together as well,” Dundas says. “It was very, very difficult and we got very lucky along the way, but we’re here today.”

Dundas admits that feelings of insular competitiveness still linger in the local cannabis community from the early days when dispensaries competed for medical licenses, but he intends to prop up local adult-use entrepreneurs through Sira’s new Incubator program. Sira will select several “microbusiness” cannabis projects, bring them to the Milford headquarters, and help them commercialize their products by scaling up their output, making it consistent, and using third-party independent testing labs to ensure safety.

“Cannabis is interesting in that we’re really trying to give birth to an entire industry all at once,” Dundas says. “Despite the fact that we put a lot of time, energy, and capital into building our facilities, we believe the better approach is to embrace competition, embrace others in the space, and really try to give folks a leg up and expand the pie of good, professional operators.”

Of course, Sira’s Incubator program can only fit so many projects, and people like Schwartz believe there’s an obvious avenue small cannabis business owners might take as long as the moratorium stays in place or if zoning becomes too selective.

“It’s a scenario where folks are going to other towns or environments that are politically and locally a little more friendly, get a foothold in a different municipality, and develop a good relationship with local officials there,” Schwartz says. “In other words, the more restrictions that are put up, I think small players have no other choice but to go somewhere else.”

The city has many questions to answer through regulations, ranging from where dispensaries will be allowed to establish themselves, to whether there will be a limited number of licenses, to whether recreational marijuana will need to be grown organically. The city has not announced specific restrictions or legislative plans as of press time.

Still, Ewen-Campen says many of his colleagues who supported the moratorium share his desire to have Somerville lead the way on recreational marijuana, which both he and Rossetti say will be paved by correcting injustices committed in the name of the war on drugs.

“We are working to follow policies that are similar to the state’s, by incentivizing business[es] that have local operators that have been disproportionately impacted by the so-called war on drugs,” Rossetti writes, going on to emphasize the prioritization of small craft operators and locally owned small businesses. Proakis also confirmed that the city is looking into a system with the licensing office that gives prioritized licenses to people who have received marijuana-related charges.

“I think this is important to people, particularly in light of the history of the war on drugs,” Ewen-Campen says. “I hope everyone understands this is not just about how we want to be able to smoke weed. This is really righting a wrong that has done enormous harm to generations of people, primarily people of color, and this is a criminal justice reform that has been long, long, long needed.”

This story appears in the Do-Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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