Highly Complicated: After 18 Months, Officials and Business Owners Say Massachusetts Is Not Ready for Recreational Marijuana

State officials and marijuana business owners both fret that the state is not ready for the budding industry more than 18 months after Massachusetts voters approved the legalization of marijuana.

State cannabis officials said they can ramp up their staffing as the size of the industry, and number of license holders, grows, but still ticked off a list of things not up to speed, like recreational marijuana testing, a fingerprinting system and state inspectors.

Patrik Jonsson is president of Curaleaf Massachusetts, which has medical marijuana dispensaries in Hanover and Oxford and a grow facility in Webster.

Curaleaf was among the first group of applicants to file for growing and retailing licenses. He hopes Curaleaf will be in the first wave of dispensaries approved to sell recreational marijuana.

"We have the support of the town that we're cultivating in, and we have the support of the town that we're going to be selling in," he said.

He said he is ready to jump, but the state isn't.

"I don't know if they started too late," Jonsson said. "They maybe underestimated the amount of work that had to be done because it's very aggressive to try and roll out a program like that."

State officials have said they wanted to take their time, learn from other states and do it right. But Colorado and Oregon got their industries up and running in six months without catastrophic mistakes.

The legislature gave Massachusetts three times as long, and regulators still are not ready.

"Without being defensive, you know, I think it's being done appropriately," said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission.

Pressure is on as many see the state blowing a July 1 target. But Hoffman said he has no idea where that date came from.

"I've asked. I really have asked. It is not in the legislation," he said. "It's driven all of our lives for nine months now and nobody knows the source of it."

The source is the ballot question voters approved on Nov. 8, 2016. The text of the question set Oct. 1, 2017, as the date the newly-formed Cannabis Control Commission was to start accepting license applications.

And then 90 days later — Jan. 1, 2018 — the commission was either to issue or to reject licenses.

But last summer, the legislature pushed everything back six months, bumping the license date to July 1, 2018. The change meant even the commission tasked with regulating a brand new industry was formed less than a year ago.

Pressed for an expectation for when marijuana could be on sale, Hoffman said, "Over the next few months."

But that could be a tall order, given that the state admits it is nowhere near ready in terms of staffing.

Hoffman said the commission still needs to recruit a third more people, particularly inspectors. They have two. They need 12.

Shawn Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Control Commission, described the inspectors' complex task this way: "On any given day, you can walk into a cultivation facility. You're then walking into what is essentially a commercial kitchen, then walking into a retail store, but also walking into a independent testing lab."

Even with so much to inspect, the commission still has not even decided how often recreational licensees will have to submit to inspections.

"We have to work on that. I don't think we've gotten the specific timeline down," Hoffman said.

The state Department of Health inspects medical dispensaries at least once every six months.

What else remains on the state's to do list?

  • Fast tracking applications for the testing labs. Though not the state's responsibility, testing is a requirement for marijuana to be sold. So far, only one lab has applied, and it had not completed its application as of last Tuesday.
  • Fingerprinting certain staff and gathering information of where recreational sellers are getting their funding.
  • Sorting out new security requirements.
  • Training everyone on the state's new seed-to-sale tracking system. The commission held its first set of training this week and said it has ordered some RFID scanners for tracking.

"Make sure that as it goes through the supply chain, that it's going to proper licenses or proper licensees, that it's been sufficiently lab tested, but also that it's not being diverted to the illicit market or diverted to other jurisdictions," Collins said.

And then, of course, there's the supply.

A license is required to grow marijuana for recreational use. The only recreational marijuana license the commission has issued so far is for cultivation. Sira Naturals, with a grow facility in Milford, got that license on June 21.

Curaleaf has applied for a cultivation license, but the commission has not voted on its application yet. And it is unclear when it will consider it. The business is tripling its production space in anticipation of selling for the recreational market, too, but time is money.

"Right now, I mean, we probably over-committed financially, so we're trying to figure out how we're going to pay for it all," Jonsson said.

They don't want to stockpile too much fresh product if they don't know when they can sell it. And the state mandated that medical patients take priority.

Jonsson said given the constraints, Curaleaf will have nowhere near enough supply.

"I mean, we obviously have to make sure we keep product for medical, and then, you know, what can we do?" he said.

With everyone in limbo and unable to grow and harvest full-tilt, Jonsson fears a shortage when retail licenses finally are issued — and bare shelves are bad for business.

"I mean, we will lose customers," he said. "But I don't think it's going to be a state problem. I think some groups might have a little bit more product. But when everyone migrates to wherever it's left, they’re going to run out of product, too."

And plants can only grow so fast.

"Then, it's just a waiting game," Jonsson said.

Despite the challenges, Hoffman says the state can get it done. He stuck with his projection of sales within "a few months."

The commission plans to vote on its first retail license Monday, for Cultivate, a medical dispensary in Leicester.

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