The board of health met Thursday to address the hazy legal issue of marijuana retail, discussing proposed state regulations and whether they sufficiently address public health and safety concerns.
The state Cannabis Control Commission issued a draft resolution in December detailing guidelines for future marijuana businesses. Local communities have the option of creating additional regulations.
“You don’t have to have any type of local control, but you can,” said Meredith O’Leary, the city’s director of public health, in an interview. O’Leary explained that the board was “trying to sift through” whether it should adopt further guidelines for local retailers.
Board members agreed Thursday to take first steps towards action. A list of concerns not addressed by draft state regulations will be drawn up and submitted to the City Council for review, said board of health Chairwoman Joanne Levin.
Should the board decide further regulation is necessary, it would draft legislation, likely holding public hearings before voting to pass it.
“We want to make sure whatever we do falls under the scope of public health,” O’Leary said, further explaining that whatever the board chooses to do should be “evidence-based.”
The board faces several challenges in getting any new regulations on the books, not least of which is a narrow window of opportunity. Recreational marijuana stores will be able to apply for licenses starting April 1, giving the board less than three months. Under state law, marijuana businesses may begin opening in July.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that little research exists to guide public health officials in crafting regulations, since marijuana has been a prohibited substance for decades, said board member Suzanne Smith.
“We don’t have any research. We have a whole lot of anecdotal experiences. It’s a real problem,” Smith said Thursday.
A focus of the Thursday meeting was edibles, with some board members worrying about the potency of marijuana-infused pastries and candy and whether retailers were obligated to educate consumers about dosage levels. Board member Cynthia Suopis said the public should be warned that a “gummy bear can be quite potent.”
The Cannabis Control Commission’s draft rules require that edibles be kept out of the hands of children. The products cannot resemble “a human, animal, fruit or sports equipment” and should not “have names similar to products consumed by minors.” Edibles will have to be labeled to alert consumers that they contain marijuana.
Another issue discussed Thursday was whether or not there should be a suggested limit on the number of marijuana establishments in the city.
“We don’t want it to be a free-for-all,” said board member William Hargraves. He recently took a trip to Eugene, Oregon, where marijuana retail is already legal, and said the community had been flooded with stores.
J. Cherry Sullivan, a coordinator with the addiction prevention group Hampshire HOPE, told board members that research in other communities has shown a correlation between retail density and youth consumption.
Some board members suggested treating marijuana similarly to the way the city treats alcohol. A liquor license quota limits the number of establishments permitted to sell within the community.
The board previously passed regulations placing local restrictions on tobacco and nicotine products, including increasing the minimum legal sales age from 18 to 21.
“I’m really comfortable leaning on alcohol and tobacco as a model for how to approach this issue,” Smith said.
Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, recently said he would not guarantee that marijuana businesses won’t be prosecuted. This has provided additional confusion and risk for those interested in starting a business. But U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren plans to pursue legislation protecting state businesses from federal authorities.