Retail shops likely not ready to sell marijuana in Massachusetts July 1

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Although commercial sales of marijuana will be allowed beginning July 1, most Massachusetts residents will find it difficult to find a retail shop open for business that day.

That’s in part because, as of May 8, nearly two-thirds of the 351 Massachusetts cities and towns had either banned or implemented a moratorium on the local retail sales of adult-use marijuana, also known as recreational marijuana, according to data compiled by GateHouse Media, the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Attorney General’s Office.

“It’s a whole new industry with multiple concerns and considerations,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Municipal Association based in Boston.

Local decisions so far signal widespread caution and rejection of commercial sales, one of the latest iterations of adult-use marijuana legalization. Voters approved adult-use marijuana by referendum in 2016 and the state has since established a series of regulations and guidelines.

July 1 marks the start of commercial sales, meaning cannabis products will be available to retail consumers similarly to alcohol, although on-site and public consumption will continue to be prohibited. Much to the chagrin of cannabis advocates, at least 74 communities have already taken pre-emptive measures and permanently banned such sales.

“The illicit market is still going to be there, so they’re really just sticking their heads in the sand,” said Maggie Kinsella, spokeswoman for The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, a cannabis advocacy group based in Reading. “They’re not keeping it out of their towns. They’re just keeping legal stores out. People are still going to go to the next town over.”

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At least 142 cities and towns have also hit the pause button and approved moratoriums, allowable under state law. The moratoriums are temporary, meaning future sales are possible and even likely. For towns where the local electorate approved the referendum in 2016, implementing a full ban would require a new ballot vote, which is time consuming and potentially costly.

The moratoriums, while not everlasting, nonetheless buy local officials some extra time.

“It gives our Ordinance and Rules Committee some time to figure out what this is going to look like locally and where it should be allowed,” said Diane P. LeBlanc, Waltham City Council president. “Waltham wants the time that is allowed by law.”

Waltham approved adult-use marijuana for the state with 55 percent of the vote, and is on the brink of passing a moratorium that would prohibit commercial sales until Dec. 31.

Beckwith said the temporary bans are not necessarily meant to stymie commercial sales, but rather give municipalities more time to hold public hearings, establish local zoning ordinances and decide whether to limit how many retail shops can open.

Some municipalities have already taken such measures and the results vary. Brewster has limited the number of retail locations to one. Uxbridge will allow two, while Medway has banned retail businesses all together, but will allow other types of marijuana-related businesses, including growing and testing facilities. Others, like Pittsfield, have embraced the new industry and will allow 35.

Cities and towns can also decide whether to assess a new local tax, which would generate revenue on cannabis sales. Advocates argue the revenue could help bolster local economies, although Beckwith is less bullish, saying the new industry could actually end up costing more than it’s worth.

“This isn’t going to be balancing any local community’s budget, and overall we think there will be an increased need for training of police officers,” Beckwith said. “The increased costs to communities will clearly be there - whether a local sales tax covers the [costs] is still up in the air.”

Beyond action taken in the public sector, how quickly each community sees new cannabis businesses is largely dependent on how quickly the private sector can get its ducks in a row. Aspiring adult-use marijuana entrepreneurs must reach local agreements and go through a series of regulatory hurdles to obtain a license from the Cannabis Control Commission at the state level.

The interest is clearly there, as the commission had received 533 license applications as of May 8. Fifty-seven of those applicants had submitted at least a portion of required documents and only 14 were seeking retail licenses. The state cannot start issuing licenses until June 1. How quickly that translates into actual retail sales on Main Street, however, will likely take time.

“There’s going to be a lot of exuberance, but retail is not an easy business,” Beckwith said. “A lot of it is going to rest on the competency of these smaller businesses and how well startups can do in an emerging marketplace.”

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