Social consumption cannabis plans get a retooling

Cannabis Control Commission ditches limited pilot, refocuses on licensing

IT’S BEEN SEVEN YEARS since Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana, but there’s still a lengthy road ahead before someone can sit down in a cannabis cafe, pop an edible or break out a joint, and wind down after a long day. That road got a bit shorter on Monday, however, with industry regulators voting to scrap a pilot program initially limiting social consumption sites – essentially the marijuana version of a bar or tasting room – to a dozen municipalities.

The regulatory and application process under a pilot program would have been “both burdensome and expensive,” said Commissioner Bruce Stebbins in advocating for the change before the Cannabis Control Commission on Monday. Under the now-tossed pilot, which was included in regulations in 2019 but never implemented, social consumption sites would be limited to 12 cities and towns. In retrospect, Stebbins notes, that is nowhere near the possible demand of 30 Massachusetts locations designated as “areas of disproportionate impact,” meaning they were targeted by past marijuana enforcement.

Those constraints would have been out of step with the equity goals central to cannabis regulations in the Bay State passed in the last few years, commissioners said at a meeting of the state oversight panel. The pilot could prompt fewer than a dozen communities to apply, wasting time and effort, or it could place commissioners in a difficult situation of deciding between communities if more than 12 communities sought to participate, Stebbins said.

If the commission went ahead with the pilot program, they would “effectively place ourselves in the position of licensing communities,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s a step or a process we’ve witnessed before in the commission’s tenure.”

Instead, the working group of cannabis commissioners and municipal leaders can focus on final licensing regulations that would allow patrons to purchase and consume cannabis products on site. After the regulations are established, municipalities will have to decide by referendum or bylaw adoption to allow social consumption.

“We will learn from other jurisdictions, carefully consider the input we will collect, and our goal  is to get it right the first time,” Stebbins said, “so we can stand by the thoroughness of the process and offer some sustainability and confidence in the process as we go forward.”

Though the pilot was conceived with good intentions and targeted social equity applicants – who come from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement – its elimination may do more to achieve those goals, advocates said.

The Equitable Opportunities Now coalition asked the commission to ditch the pilot program. The volunteer group, which pushes for cannabis market participation for Black and brown communities, said doing so would be “in the interest of avoiding overly burdensome regulations, removing artificial and unnecessary barriers, respecting local control, advancing the commission’s licensing prerogative, and providing clarity to potential entrepreneurs from disparately harmed communities and their potential host communities.”

The chair of the cannabis commission, Shannon O’Brien, cautioned that the state oversight board needs to be “nimble” enough to quickly address any problems that arise during the initial licensing process, lest it end up in a situation like cannabis delivery. She said the commission is just now revisiting the delivery regulatory infrastructure under which, “frankly, there have only been a couple of participants who’ve been able to make this successful.”

All commissioners except Kimberly Roy voted to eliminate the pilot program language from the commission’s recreational marijuana regulations. Roy voted “present.”

“I don’t have enough information around public health, public safety,” she said at the meeting. “And to say that we should not walk before we run – I just feel that we’re taking kind of a different approach.”

Interested parties will have time to weigh in on regulations before the formal regulatory process starts up, said Commissioner Nurys Camargo. The commission will host two in-person public listening sessions and a virtual session in June, she said.

Other states’ efforts around social consumption could be illustrative, said O’Brien. Colorado has a roughly comparable population size to Massachusetts, though it is less dense and urban, but has only seen three social consumption businesses come online since it legalized the practice in 2020.

Each state is different, Camargo noted. California is further ahead, Colorado is still working through its framework, and Nevada is just rolling out new social consumption policies. Across states, access to capital is still a huge factor when it comes to opening a cannabis business, Camargo said.

Plus, there are concerns about ventilation for vaping indoors and second-hand smoke impacts from smoking a joint outside on a patio, since regulations recommend keeping smoke outdoors. Commissioners are also mulling how social consumption sites will interact with local zoning, as well as how best to combat existing barriers for equity applicants. It leaves the working group with a full plate to consider.

“The licensing types, the zoning, the air quality, all that stuff – trust me, it’s probably keeping us up at night right now,” Camargo said. “But all that stuff will be addressed within the regs.”