Final inspections of prospective marijuana businesses were underway, Massachusetts' top marijuana regulator said Thursday, but the question of when the state's first pot shops will finally open their doors remained unanswered.
Steven Hoffman, chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, declined to offer a date for the start of recreational marijuana sales, but he expressed confidence it would happen sometime in the fall. There was a "distinct possibility," he added, that the panel could begin issuing final licenses at its next public meeting on Oct. 4.
The stores, when they do open, would be the first in the eastern United States. A 2016 voter-approved law that legalized recreational marijuana called for retail sales to begin by Jan. 1, 2018. The Legislature later moved the target date back to July 1, yet there is still no place in Massachusetts for people to buy the drug legally, except for medical purposes.
Hoffman acknowledged the frustration that consumers and many in the cannabis industry were feeling about the slow rollout of recreational marijuana sales but defended the panel for thoroughly reviewing prospective businesses to assure safety and compliance with all regulations.
"I will not apologize for the behavior of the commission," Hoffman told reporters. "I will say I'm sorry for the people that had expectations that were not met."
The panel on Thursday approved provisional retail licenses for proposed marijuana stores in Ayer, Hudson, Pittsfield and Salisbury. That brought to 15 the number of retailers that have been issued provisional licenses since July 1, but none can begin selling recreational pot until final licenses are issued.
For a business to be granted a final operating license, it must pass inspection by the commission, and all its employees must register with the state.
Hoffman said he did not know the results of the first inspections conducted earlier this week, but he said they demonstrated that the process was moving forward.
"The final inspection is to see if there are any issues. And if there are issues we are going to have to have those issues dealt with and we are going to have to go out and re-inspect," he said.
Shaleen Title, an associate commissioner on the five-member panel who has expressed her own impatience with the delays, thanked commission investigators for being thorough in their review of license applicants. But she said regulators should continually update consumers on the timeline for opening stores.
"They have been waiting for two years," said Title, who has also been critical of cities and towns for demanding too much from businesses in return for allowing them to operate in their communities.
Also Thursday, Hoffman said the decision by GFA Federal Credit Union, of Gardner, to be the first financial institution to offer banking services to marijuana businesses in Massachusetts was "incredibly significant," and he urged other banks to follow suit.
Banks are reluctant to service the cannabis industry because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, restricting many businesses to cash-only sales.