Massachusetts issues final licenses to first recreational marijuana dispensaries

"I think we're weeks away."

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 1, 2018 file photo, a customer purchases marijuana at the Harborside marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on the first day that recreational marijuana was sold legally in California.
A customer purchases marijuana at the Harborside marijuana dispensary in Oakland on the first day that recreational marijuana was sold legally in California earlier this year. Massachusetts regulators issued the first two final licenses for marijuana retailers in the state Thursday. –Mathew Sumner / AP

BOSTON (AP) — Marijuana regulators issued final licenses Thursday to operators hoping within weeks to open the first commercial pot shops in Massachusetts.

The Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday voted 4-0 to issue the licenses to Cultivate Holdings in Leicester and New England Treatment Access in Northampton. Both companies operate medical marijuana dispensaries at those locations and had earlier been granted provisional licenses by the commission to sell recreational marijuana.

“I think we’re weeks away,” said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the commission, noting there were still several procedural steps that must be taken before the stores receive permission to begin selling to the public.

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“I think it’s a big milestone, but you know it’s going to be an even bigger one when the stores actually open,” he said.

Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults in November 2016, but nearly two years later there is still no place in the state to legally purchase the drug. The slow rollout has frustrated both consumers and cannabis businesses seeking a foothold in what is viewed as a potentially lucrative market.

Officials have defended their cautious and deliberative approach to licensing.

“We’re doing it right, I’m very proud of the way that we’re doing it,” Hoffman said.

One of the five 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.

Once open, the Massachusetts pot shops would be the first recreational marijuana outlets in the eastern United States.

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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.

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