It will likely be a ‘matter of years’ until cannabis cafes open in Massachusetts

"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."

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 07:  A woman smokes a cigarette of marijuana in an Amsterdam cafe on February 7, 2007 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city council in Amsterdam has recently voted in favour of introducing a citywide ban on smoking marijuana in public areas. A successful trial ban in the De Baarsjes district of Amsterdam has been declared a success after a reduction in anti social behaviour. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)     Library Tag  02112007   Real Estate
A woman smokes marijuana in an Amsterdam cafe. –Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

After nearly two years of anticipation, the first recreational marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts could be up and running within “weeks.” However, Bay State residents will have to take their purchases home; it’s going to be much longer before the opening of any businesses that allow customers to smoke or consume weed.

“I would say it’s a matter of years,” Shaleen Title, one of the five commissioners of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, said during a meeting Tuesday.

The 2016 voter-approved ballot question to legalize marijuana gave state regulators the authority to license social consumption establishments, or so-called cannabis cafes. Massachusetts could become the first state in the country to license such businesses — which could include anything from cafes to restaurants to movie theaters to yoga studios — at the state level.

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However, amid safety concerns from Gov. Charlie Baker, the CCC decided in February to delay licensing social consumption (and delivery) businesses to focus on the initial rollout of the adult-use cannabis industry. The agency said it would revisit the topic in October.

Well, October is here, and CCC officials are identifying a number of barriers to social-use businesses opening in Massachusetts.

First, the state’s restrictions on tobacco smoking bars don’t currently permit marijuana use, according to Shawn Collins, the executive director of the CCC (though some private clubs have fleeted those rules).

“While the concept of smoking bars is not new in Massachusetts, marijuana does not currently fit within the legal definition,” Collins said during his presentation Tuesday. “Therefore, social consumption may be limited to ingestion via electronic vaping and edibles.”

The discussion also comes as Massachusetts has been tightening its smoking laws. Most recently, Baker signed a bill in July to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21 (which is also the minimum age for purchasing recreational marijuana) and expand prohibitions on public smoking to also apply to e-cigarettes.

Another major barrier, as The Boston Globe‘s Dan Adams recently reported, is social consumption licenses are currently banned by default at the local level, unless residents petition to hold a referendum to allow cannabis cafes. However, state law doesn’t provide any outline on how that process would get started. So, in short, there’s currently no way for cities and towns to legally allow social consumption businesses.

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“This is not going to happen immediately, because there is not a workable process under the law by which a city or town can allow this,” Title said Tuesday, adding that “there would need to be a change in the legislation before we can move forward.”

Title noted that the supplemental budget filed by Baker in March would have fixed the issue by spelling out a specific petition process, despite “calls from activists over the weekend” blaming the Republican governor for the “error” in the law.

“It’s not Governor Baker’s fault,” said the longtime marijuana legalization advocate.

Title also suggested Tuesday that the CCC form a working group of municipal leaders to look at safety and health concerns and set up a pilot program for small businesses and equity program participants to enter the social-use industry.

“In short, the error in the law needs to be fixed, but, in the meantime, municipalities who want social consumption, we want to collaborate with you,” she tweeted after the meeting, receiving near immediate interest from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

In the end, the agency’s five commissioners agreed Tuesday to submit their questions about permitting social consumption to Collins and have him report back at their next meeting on Oct 18. with a timeline for when CCC staff could get back to them with answers.

Overall, Collins said that outcomes due to marijuana legalization in the United States are “relatively unstudied.”

However, he also said that research in the Netherlands, which is famous for its cannabis cafes, indicated that such businesses aren’t associated with any increased rate of marijuana usage compared to countries without legal social consumption establishments. Collins also said that legalizing marijuana without allowing social consumption spaces could continue to disproportionately affect people of color or of lower income, both of which are less likely to own a home. Under state law, it’s illegal to consume marijuana in public and landlord can prohibit tenants from smoking within their residences.

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Following the meeting, CCC Chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters that he sees the issue of allowing cannabis cafes and other similar businesses as a “social justice issue,” according to MassLive.

“But I also think it’s a complicated issue,” he said.

Title stressed there will be social consumption establishments in Massachusetts — eventually. And given the estimated 20 percent usage rate of marijuana in Massachusetts, they will also lose the stigma, she said.

“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,” Title said. “But it’s not happening tomorrow.”

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