Cannabis regulators kicking the tires on social consumption sites
Massachusetts Social Consumption Sites Face Uncertain Timetable Amid Regulatory Challenges.
Tito Jackson hopes to someday turn his marijuana dispensary, Apex Noire, into a place where guests can listen to poetry and music while enjoying cannabis-infused foods and other products on his facility’s roof deck.
But for now Jackson’s dream is just that – a dream. “We are in a regulatory environment that is the equivalent of alcohol becoming legal, but not allowing bars,” said the former Boston city councilor.
Social consumption sites, public places where people can consume marijuana, have been a coming attraction in Massachusetts since the ballot question legalizing marijuana became law in 2016. Initially, licenses for social consumption sites were going to be rolled out in no more than 12 municipalities through a pilot program. That was scrapped by a 2022 law, Chapter 180, which empowers the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to create regulations and licensing for social consumption sites in any municipality that opts in.
Members of the commission have been holding public listening sessions and conducting surveys on the topic of social consumption. They have also been turning to other states for inspiration. This past June, Commissioner Nurys Camargo took a small team to visit social consumption sites in San Francisco and Oakland to gather more information on what these places really look like and what regulations are in place.
“You see the regulations, you read them. But this was really an opportunity to just see this live and in person,” Camargo said in a phone interview. “Everyone thinks when we talk about social and public consumption, it’s just a lounge or a cafe where people are hanging out and smoking a joint or consuming. But there’s more than that.”
In California, Camargo visited Moe Greens, which has a classy atmosphere with an indoor lounge for smoking, and programming that includes drag shows, comedy nights, cannabis demos, and cannabis education. She also visited Barbary Coast, which serves cannabis-infused drinks in a lounge that has high-backed red booths, intimate tables, and lots of TV screens that broadcast sporting events. In Oakland, there’s a dispensary called Root’d In The 510 where the owners are planning to build what Camargo described as a “Dave and Buster’s” of social consumption sites; it will have an arcade, a karaoke lounge, a stage, and a concert space.
Camargo went on the trip with the eyes of a regulator—for one, she was looking at how tight the doors are between where cannabis products are sold and where they are consumed. One of Camargo’s biggest concerns about social consumption sites is protecting employees from second-hand smoke. The CCC will have to set rules on what kind of ventilation systems will be required in social consumption sites and how a consumption site needs to be separated from the dispensary, all while keeping costs low enough to allow the operator to turn a profit.
Camargo is also wondering how much consumer education should be required from a social consumption site operator, and how much should be done by a public awareness campaign?
“We really have to think about folks that are coming into these places that may not be educated,” she said. “So how do we do the consumer education well, but not overburden somebody? When you go into a restaurant establishment [or] a bar, no one’s throwing in your face to be careful when you’re consuming alcohol because we’ve normalized alcohol.”
The timetable for launching social consumption sites remains fluid, but at least many months. Even after regulations are approved, cities and towns will need time to digest those and create their own processes. After that, businesses like Jackson’s will have to decide if they can afford to open up social consumption sites based on the regulations that the CCC lands on.
It might be a long time until folks can walk onto the roof deck of Apex Noire to indulge in a gourmet, cannabis-infused meal, but Jackson is optimistic.
“I am absolutely excited about where we are at and can’t wait to see where we end up,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that the commission and the commissioners that we’ve spoken to at these meetings are listening. I feel like they are responding in a way that I believe indicates that they are understanding what we can do rather than what most often happens in regulatory environments, where people tell you what we can’t do.”