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MA gov clears way for cannabis cafés

Last week, in a landmark marijuana industry package, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law an effective reimagining of the state’s approach to commercial marijuana.

Of the many aims of the bill, a few of the most notable are its aims to relocate funds from recreational marijuana revenues to historically disenfranchised entrepreneurs, reduce the number of unjust fees cannabis operators face, and create a space in the marketplace for the state’s new cannabis cafés program.

For years, experts have been quick to point out the link between cannabis sales and the tourism industry, noting the way the two have the potential for profitable collaboration. Massachusetts’ latest cannabis café initiative is just one example of the opportunity available to states that take advantage of marijuana’s role in the tourism industry.

The cafés have been in talks for years, but the program has only now been added to the state’s recent marijuana policy because of previous issues with wording. The program works to provide tourists, renters, and others legally endorsed spaces to use marijuana products. Up until this point, public marijuana smoking in Massachusetts has been punishable by a $100 fine.

These cannabis cafés are a small part of a larger push for what’s known as social consumption. Just as there are specific businesses that are designated to simultaneously sell alcohol products and allow customers to consume alcohol on the premises (such as bars, pubs, and breweries), cannabis social consumption would create similar provisions for the legal sale and social use of marijuana products on licensed premises.

In an interview with GBH, Massachusetts State House reporter Katie Lannan spoke about the state’s intent for the cafés, noting, “[the bill] also outlines a process for cities and towns to vote to allow social consumption sites. If you look at the alcohol parallel, [these would be] places that are more like a bar than a liquor store, where people will be able to use cannabis on-site after they buy it.”

Cannabis advocates in the state have long been pushing for legalized social consumption, but few legislative measures have been taken until now. Lannan discussed the way Massachusett voters’ attitudes towards social consumption have changed over the last several years, claiming, “there were regulations approved in 2019, but there was the idea that there needed to be a law change so that cities and towns could opt in, that they could find a way to authorize these sites. So that’s what this law does.”

Although this new cannabis package does create some provisions for the cafés, it is unclear how the state will realistically implement guidelines for these establishments. For funding, Massachusetts commissioners will have to negotiate with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

Of the regulations that were approved in 2019, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission will have to revisit those which deal with social consumption. Originally, the legislation created provisions for issuing licenses for social consumption to establishments in 12 Massachusetts municipalities, slowly moving to more opportunities for licensure across the state.

These regulations were met with challenges based on the way they handled legal limits for use before driving and underage social construction. Since then, the commission has worked hard to find a more effective solution for social cannabis consumption in the state. 

The path towards clearer enforcement measures will be slow but steady. The state’s cannabis commission will revisit the existing standards for evaluating its contracts with marijuana producers. The commission will do this on a case-by-case basis as cannabis companies apply for annual license renewals.

Just as facilities that have been legally approved for the social consumption of alcohol are required to renew their licenses, cannabis cafés will be required to maintain current licensure in order to operate legally. Regulations for where these establishments can facilitate social consumption are still in the works, as it falls to municipal governments to determine whether or not they will allow such facilities to operate.

Massachusetts cannabis advocates have been awaiting the advent of a package like this one since 2016, when the question of social consumption first appeared on the ballot. Although voters were quick to show support for the measure, it has been slow to take off in the six years since. 

Many would cite the disparity between state lawmaking and municipal responsibility as the cause for the lengthy wait for the social consumption of cannabis. There have been few measures to efficiently transfer responsibility to local governments so that they can establish these sites for themselves.

With the passing of this new bill, local governments are able to issue an ordinance or by-law to condone the operation of a cannabis social consumption site like the ones outlined in the package.

As of now, it is unclear when the first cannabis cafés will be open for business. Although the legislation surrounding this program has come a long way, there is still much ground to be covered as local municipalities navigate the implications of social consumption sites for their economies and legal systems. 

There are opportunities for interested businesses and entrepreneurs to begin a pre-certification process so that they can be better informed and prepared for the passing of pro-cannabis social consumption measures on the local level.

On the whole, the package seeks to create a more equitable marketplace for cannabis producers in the state of Massachusetts, where proponents of the drug have historically been met with racially motivated arrests and fines.

The Massachusetts cannabis commission has worked to create a fairer playing ground for the state’s booming marijuana marketplace. The aforementioned allocation of cannabis tax funds to disenfranchised entrepreneurs is just one of the measures the commission has implemented to create more opportunities for cannabis producers in the state.

Packages like this one are a victory for cannabis proponents around the state. Not only has it created more opportunities for those who have historically been disenfranchised by the sale and use of marijuana products, but it creates an entirely new realm of marijuana business opportunities for Massachusetts entrepreneurs.

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