Alcohol: A Roadmap For Marijuana In Massachusetts

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If you’re curious about the future of legal marijuana in Massachusetts, the liquor industry might offer some guidance.

Like marijuana, the manufacturing, sale and transport of alcohol were once illegal. The 13-year period, known as Prohibition, ended in 1933, and there are similarities between the years that followed and what’s happening today with the rollout of adult-use marijuana, also known as recreational marijuana.

“There are some really interesting parallels between the end of Prohibition and the legalization of marijuana,” said Stephanie Schorow, author of “Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits.”

Today, more than 74 Massachusetts municipalities have banned retail sales of adult-use marijuana, preventing retailers — often referred to as “pot shops” — from opening within city or town limits. The same thing happened after Prohibition, as cities and towns decided to remain “dry,” meaning alcohol sales were not allowed.

Ultimately, over time, the local decisions were largely reversed. It happened most often when an economic boost was needed, according to Schorow, a Medford resident.

“When towns needed revenue, they opened up the liquor laws,” she said. “It stimulated the growth of local restaurants.”

Fast forward 85 years and there are a still a few holdouts. Eight towns remain dry: Alford, Dunstable, Chilmark, Gosnold, Hawley, Montgomery, Westhampton and Mount Washington. Another eight don’t have a single alcohol retailer. But the 16 boozeless communities pale in comparison to the 335 wet ones.

As of March 3, the state counted 12,098 retail liquor licenses, including package stores, restaurants and clubs, according to data shared by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. Per capita, Cape Cod was the “booziest” region, led by Provincetown. The iconic seaside town at the tip of the Cape boasted roughly one liquor license for every 34 residents.

Among towns with at least one liquor license, Boxford was the driest town with one license serving 7,965 residents. The statewide median was one for 575 residents.

Advocates are optimistic something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, will play out with adult-use marijuana, which was approved by Massachusetts voters in 2016. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission is considering adult-use marijuana licenses, and commercial retail sales could start as early as July 1.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see that many cannabis licenses, and if you saw half, I’d think it’d be a lot. It’s a product that’s popular, but not nearly as popular as alcohol,” said Jim Borghesani, president of a cannabis-consulting firm called Primepoint Media. “I have no doubt, though, maybe three to five years down the road, we’re going to see the beginning of restaurants and cafes where you can consume on location, just like you can with alcohol,”

On-site and public consumption are prohibited in Massachusetts, although state regulators are slated to consider the issue later this year. Borghesani, who served as communications director for the campaign to legalize adult-use marijuana, said the industry — like the alcohol industry — will succeed over time, especially as the stigma surrounding marijuana diminishes.

“The key to that happening will be the eventual normalization of cannabis as a substance,” he said. “The lingering fear … that’s been part of our society for nearly 100 years will dissipate once the legal market establishes itself, and people will see that their fears are unfounded.”

How the marijuana industry is regulated also signals how it could ultimately look akin to the liquor industry. After Prohibition, the alcohol industry was quickly subjected to strict regulation. As the legal industry grew, bootleggers, speakeasies and drugstores — acting as de facto liquor stores — were ultimately replaced by distributors, bars and package stores.

The Cannabis Control Commission, a state agency established to regulate the adult-use marijuana market, is considering licenses for growing, distribution and retail sales. Fifty-one applicants have submitted all the necessary documents for consideration, and the most — 16 applicants — are looking to set up shop in Worcester County.

Shawn Collins, CCC executive director, says tight regulations are a necessity to gaining public trust in a new market.

“We’re now 80 years post-Prohibition, and who knows what folks thought back then, or what they predicted, but what we’ve seen is a gain in comfort because it’s a tightly regulated marketplace,” he explained. “That’s kind of the first step we’ve taken, as the commission has put in place strong regulations, and declared an intent to enforce those regulations.”

Despite all the similarities, however, there are some glaring differences. And perhaps the most-prominent one is related to law. Prohibition was repealed at the federal level with the 21st Amendment and subsequently ratified by states. Conversely, marijuana has been legalized at the state level and remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

The dynamic adds a unique layer of growing pains for marijuana, especially as ancillary industries, including banks, real estate and investors, are wary of potential repercussions that could come along with partnering with the burgeoning industry.

“That’s a different challenge than what was faced in 1933,” Borghesani said.

How much it will matter in the long run, however, might not be answered for decades.

“Eighty years from now we’ll see what the market will look like,” Collins said. “Hopefully it’ll be a good blueprint.”