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How Massachusetts Became a Leader in Regulating Marijuana

While much of the nation was reeling from Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 election, cannabis advocates were cheering when recreational-legalization initiatives passed in four states: California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.

By 2017, marijuana would be officially legal for adult use on the entire West Coast, as well as in Colorado and Nevada. The New England victories finally gave East Coast legalization supporters something to crow about.

While Maine’s legalization process has been beset by delays (in part thanks to its reefer-mad governor Paul LePage), Massachusetts filed its final regulations on March 7. Starting July 1, the Bay State will be home to the only legal recreational marijuana market east of the Mississippi River.

In addition, residents will be able to grow up to six plants. However, they can’t be visible to the public “without the use of binoculars, aircraft and other optical aids,” according to the FAQ at mass-cannabis-control.com.

Starting July 1, Massachusetts will be home to the only recreational marijuana market east of the Mississippi River.

Several recent compromises on regulation included no delivery or cannabis cafes (at least for now) and not allowing felons who’ve been convicted of certain hard-drug offenses to work directly with cannabis plants. Also, 35% of the state’s cannabis supply must be portioned off for medical use.

A hard-won highlight is the social-equity program intended to help remedy some of the injustices caused by the War on Drugs. City-level equity programs like the one in Oakland, California helped regulators in Massachusetts craft the first statewide cannabis equity program in the nation.

“Our team’s first step was to examine all other [equity] programs and see how we could incorporate their best elements,” Shaleen Title, one of five commissioners on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, tells Freedom Leaf. The commission’s goal is, she says, “to promote and encourage the inclusion of people from communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition.”

Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title

Equity applicants must meet one of the three criteria: Live in an area that’s been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement; been convicted of a drug offense; or be the spouse or child of someone who has a drug conviction. Those applicants will receive priority for licenses, employee training and technical assistance.

“People from these communities will get various benefits,” notes Title. “We’re required by law to keep track of the levels of participation by different groups. That will help us to improve our own programs as well as provide information for other states when they make their decisions about equity.”

For Title, who made the transition from cannabis activist to regulator, engaging with the public has been one of the most rewarding parts of her new job. “It’s enormously gratifying that the public was so informed and engaged with our process,” she says. “I enjoyed hearing from farmers seeking to grow outdoors and people in the underground market seeking to transition to the legal market, because there are clear policy benefits to working with those communities.”

SHALEEN TITLE: “Our goal is to promote and encourage the inclusion of people from communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition.” 

Settling into her new role as a government official has gone more smoothly than she expected. “My goals are very similar to what they were before,” she explains.

As an attorney as well as the co-founder of THC Staffing Group, Title sought to help create a fair and equitable cannabis industry. “Now I’m working towards the same goal, but from a regulatory perspective.”

Kris Krane, cofounder and president of 4Front Ventures, thinks the regulators “did a great job” in fashioning Massachusetts’ new cannabis rules. “They held a lot of listening sessions, comment periods and accepted written comments and testimony. They probably took more feedback than anywhere else in the country.” 4Front’s subsidiary Mission Partners owns a dispensary in Worcester.

However, Krane, whose company is based in Boston, warns that “the hard part is still ahead of us.” Many other legal states have run into problems implementing regulations. In some states, applicants who lost out on licenses have delayed the rollouts.

Kris Krane (center on couch) with the 4Front Venture team

In Massachusetts, businesses will have other hurdles to overcome, such as a regulation that limits indoor cultivation operations to 36 watts per square foot of canopy. That rule effectively limits cultivators to using only LED lights.

“Trying to cut down the carbon footprint in the industry is a really laudable goal,” Krane explains. “But I think there are other things they could’ve done to reduce the carbon footprint,” such as considering total energy used at the facility rather than just focusing on lighting.

Another requirement that businesses will have to contend with is the host community agreement. By requiring agreements with municipal officials—who have no set criteria for accepting or rejecting potential marijuana establishments—it effectively allows towns to ban cannabis businesses.

Perhaps the most worrisome part of the process, however, is whether or not there will be enough supply to meet the demand. “There will be shortages come mid-July,” predicts Keith Saunders, a sociologist who researches drug policy and sits on NORML’s board. Given the timeline for evaluating applications, awarding licenses and building cultivation facilities, and then growing, harvesting, and curing the marijuana, “new cultivators’ products will not be available until December.”

KEITH SAUNDERS: “There are about 25 million people within a day trip of Massachusetts.” 

Some advocates were also displeased with the delay in social-use licensing. Cities such as Denver and San Francisco have established municipal licenses for social-use businesses, and Massachusetts could’ve become the first state to license social use. “Lounges or cafes would be really impactful for the tourism industry,” says Krane.

Other avenues to consumption are available, though. Saunders says when he was working with a cannabis trade show last year, he was able to find a venue that allowed cannabis consumption. “For the time being, those of us who would like to run a cannabis-consumption event just have to be sure to do it on private property.”

NORML board member Keith Saunders speaks at Seattle Hempfest

Even without allowing social use, the state is set to become a tourist destination for cannabis. “Massachusetts will be the only state east of Colorado with a legal market, come July 1,” Saunders boasts. “There are about 25 million people within a day trip of Massachusetts.”

The fight for equity in the industry will no doubt be a tough one. “Do not expect cannabis legalization to address the problems of capitalism, and of greater racial problems,” Saunders says. “Banks are not going to suddenly offer business loans to poor people just because a section of law says they get first dibs on obtaining a business license.”

Although the equity program will offer “assistance with identifying or raising funds or capital,” it’s no secret that sources for capital in the marijuana industry are hard to come by. Most institutional investors are barred from entering it, leaving a small pool of family and individual investors.

But Shaleen Title is up for the challenge. She’s looking forward to making the state’s legalization measure “manifest into reality” and to continued activism around the country. “Social-justice improvements such as sentencing reform, clemency for people incarcerated for marijuana offenses, expungement of past records and treating people who use drugs like human beings will be priorities for future generations.”

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