Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em – at home

Pot bars not on the horizon in Mass.

In the language of the emerging marijuana industry, where cannabis is the preferred term, they are called social consumption sites. Years ago, we would have called them pot bars.

The cafes were envisioned as part of the 2016 ballot question as a place where those who use marijuana could congregate to smoke, drink, and eat THC-infused products with other like-minded consumers. But, like everything else related to marijuana in Massachusetts, they appear to be years away from reality.

Even so, the state Cannabis Control Commission has started the ball rolling on regulations for the cafes, a pretty good idea given how glacial the pace has been for licensing both medical and recreational marijuana facilities.

Should they allow only BYOC (“Bring Your Own Cannabis”) or license places that sell products to be used on premises? If it is BYOC, how does anyone determine the products meet state requirements on strength and toxicity? Should all forms of consumption be allowed, including smoking, or just limit the use to vaping and edibles to avoid the risk of second-hand smoke? How do you monitor impairment for driving after leaving such places without a field sobriety test? And how can communities go about licensing them?

Like most everything else with the marijuana business, there are no ready answers and some problems include legislative obstacles. The commission staff had looked into what other states have done and the answer came back, not much, mainly because of the same issues facing Massachusetts.

The recreational industry is just getting its legs under it in the half-dozen states where it is being legally sold and used but examples of cafes are few and far between. Several cities in California have allowed retail stores to have “tasting bars,” Denver has licensed bring-your-own cafes, and Las Vegas is on the verge of permitting hookah lounges to open up next to retail stores. The place with the most experience is the Netherlands, according to Shawn Collins, the commission’s executive director, where some 700 cafes operate, about one for every 29,000 residents.

According to Collins, no state has a licensing system, leaving it up to cities and towns. That’s a problem in Massachusetts because while the law allows communities to “opt in,” a glitch in the statute provides no process for it to happen.

The referendum’s language regarding the opt-in, which was adopted by the Legislature in its rewrite, calls for cities and towns to follow state law for initiative petitions at the local level. There is, however, no state law for initiative petitions at the local level, leaving no avenue for the local processing to occur. Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of State William Galvin plan to submit a fix to the Legislature, but that went nowhere before the session ended. It’s unclear when, if at all, lawmakers will revisit the provision for a fix, one of several changes commissioners say are needed including the enforcement of financial caps on host community agreements.

Another statutory bump in the road is the recently passed law regarding underage smoking that not only hiked the statewide age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, it also adds further restrictions on public smoking. Some of those restrictions could apply to where marijuana can be used, but, like much else, it’s unclear what the effect would be.

For most on the commission, social consumption cafes are a matter of social equality, noting people of color have a far lower rate of home ownership, which may put them in apartments where a landlord prohibits smoking and they have nowhere else to go. It also could be an avenue for those without deep pockets to get into the business in a way that reduces the initial financial investment that comes with inventory and security required for retail stores.

“Personally, I’d like to see it happen, because I do think it’s a social justice issue, being able to consume someplace safe if you can’t do so at your house,” said Chairman Steven Hoffman.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Despite the obstacles, the commission is taking the long view. They voted to start a working group of local officials to look into the issue and start a pilot program with a handful of willing communities. At least one – Holyoke – has already raised its hand.

Commissioner Shaleen Title, the only member of the board who voted for the 2016 ballot question and the only one with private sector experience in the industry, said when everyone looks back on this, they will wonder what the problem was.

“There will be social consumption, eventually,” she said. “This is not some new scary group of people that’s going to start doing some new scary thing. This is something that’s happening. In 10 years, this is going to be as normal as when you go to the Boston Common and see a movie and you can buy a drink. But it’s not happening tomorrow.”