Regulators Agree To New Approach On Cannabis Cafes

Cannabis coffee - marijuana leaf on coffee foam

Photo: Getty Images

BOSTON (State House News Service) - Marijuana regulators voted Monday to scrap years-old plans that called for rolling out cannabis cafes and other social consumption sites with a 12-municipality pilot program, a step that one official said could bring that voter-approved segment of the industry online "a little quicker."

Nine months after a new state law outlined a process for cities and towns to authorize on-site consumption of marijuana products, the Cannabis Control Commission pivoted away from past regulations that would have constrained the launch to a dozen cities and towns.

CCC staff will now set out to craft a regulatory framework awarding licenses to locations where patrons will be able to purchase and enjoy marijuana products on the premises, in contrast from the existing retail stores that have been open for years.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo, a member of a working group that recommended the change in approach, said the decision to drop the pilot program encourages municipalities to decide whether they will opt in to social consumption and allows regulators to devote their attention to longer-term questions about the industry rather than operation of a limited pilot program.

"It's sort of a parallel track. It's going to allow us to create [social consumption] a little quicker, but this is still not going to be done overnight," Camargo told reporters after the commission's meeting. "Everyone's wondering: what is it? What is the regulatory framework? What are the licenses? I think that now, we can really start thinking about what does that look like, especially now that we don't have a pilot project in place."

"If we would have had a pilot project in place, then we'd have to think about a pilot license, and a pilot license would get stuck in our regs for the next three to five or six years, knowing how things move slowly throughout the process," she added.

After a lengthy discussion, Commissioners Ava Callendar Concepcion, Camargo and Stebbins voted in favor of eliminating the pilot program language from the commission's recreational marijuana regulations, as did CCC Chair Shannon O'Brien.

While she supported the change, O'Brien said she still has several unanswered questions about how the broader regulations will address the risks of secondhand smoke inside marijuana cafes, impairment, and promoting business success for equity applicants, microbusinesses and craft cooperatives, who under existing regulations will have exclusive access to social consumption licenses for the first 36 months.

"If we don't get this right during the exclusivity period, I think that we could be harming that opportunity for people," O'Brien told reporters.

Commissioner Kimberly Roy voted present, saying she did not have "enough information around public safety, public health and equity" impacts.

"Sometimes, even things done with the best intentions can go awry, whether it's the delivery operator -- which was done with the best intentions, right, to remove barriers and to help people and to create equity," she said. "Microbusinesses were a license type that was done with the best intentions. Craft cooperative farmers, same thing. And these have either not worked or struggled or they're failing."

All other commissioners voted in favor.

The ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana use that voters approved in 2016 included language authorizing marijuana consumption "on the premises where sold" and at special licensed events, but cannabis cafes have yet to open to the public nearly seven years later.

Regulators pumped the brakes in 2018 after then-Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, who succeeded Baker in the corner office, raised concerns about the pace of the rollout.

Baker for years also sought to overhaul the state's drugged-driving laws but met resistance in the Legislature.

In 2019, the CCC's working group recommended launching social consumption with a pilot program, and officials also determined that the Legislature needed to update state law to give cities and towns the mechanism they needed to authorize on-site cannabis use. That change became part of a wide-ranging law Baker signed last year, which also boosted oversight on the host community agreements between marijuana businesses and municipalities.

Commissioner Bruce Stebbins, who also served on the social consumption working group, said Monday that the process of standing up and running a pilot program with the new law now on the books would be "both burdensome and expensive."

"Right now, to help direct our work, we don't feel that the pilot program is needed as it's written. So help us take that work off our plate," Stebbins said. "Our feeling is that eliminating the pilot program will help us dive in to building that licensing and regulatory framework."

The previous regulations called for limiting participation in the social consumption pilot program to a dozen cities and towns -- less than half of the 30 communities dubbed "disproportionately impacted" by past marijuana prohibition, who must receive some kind of positive impact from new cannabis establishments.

Stebbins said if the CCC received more than 12 applicants for the pilot program, the commission could wind up "in the position of having to reject a community's application."

"We would also be limiting a community's ability to adopt social consumption as an integral part of their municipal equity plan," he said.

Concepcion, who voted in favor of eliminating the pilot program, later told reporters that it's "too early" to tell if regulators will impose a limit on the number of social consumption licenses in the final regulations.

The group Equitable Opportunities Now, which seeks to empower people of color in the recreational marijuana industry, previously called on regulators to move toward a "comprehensive, equitable, safe and healthy onsite consumption licensing and regulatory framework" instead of a pilot program.

"We appreciate Commissioners Camargo and Stebbins' leadership on this issue and the thoughtful discussion of the full Commission and look forward to working together to ensure that this exciting new license type creates meaningful opportunities for communities most harmed by the war on drugs," said EON Policy Co-chair Armani White.

Written By Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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