MA: Picture Adding Marijuana To The Berkshires’ Famous Lures Of Culture, Retreats

Photo Credit: Mike Plaisance

Imagine, wafting in to join the Berkshires’ renowned offerings of performing arts, museums and retreats, the addition of marijuana.

“The reason I think this is really important is because it’s about to explode and the more information we have the better we will be able to serve the community and the people that are coming to the Berkshires,” said Kathy Walsh, owner of KnockKnock Social, a social media agency for the cannabis industry.

Walsh was among over 30 business owners, representatives of the tourism and hospitality industries and others who attended a forum Thursday called “Canna Tourism in the Berkshires — What it Means for Your Business,” held at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort at 37 Corey Road.

It’s big business: Marijuana sales are projected to hit $450 million in Massachusetts this year, but expected to rocket to $1.5 billion in Colorado in 2018, forum presenter Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. said. Colorado began permitting retail sales of marijuana in January 2014.

Nuciforo is a former state senator and the co-founder of the Berkshire Roots medical marijuana dispensary that opened in March in Pittsfield. Berkshire Roots offered the forum with 1Berkshire, the regional economic development organization.

Using slides in an upstairs conference room, Nuciforo framed the presentation of the marijuana industry as one that is fast-moving and marked by some uncertainties but nonetheless bustling with attractions in the way pot can be consumed and integrated into businesses.

Marijuana in other locations is part of lodging, cooking, tour, guidebook, retreat, transportation, dinner party and other industries, such as “sushi and joint rolling” classes, Nuciforo said.

Photo Credit: Mike Plaisance

“As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. Cannabis is somehow finding its way into all these different sectors,” he said.

Pot is available not only in smoking form, but baked into food like chocolate chip cookies and chews, tincture, topical rub, distillate cartridges used in vaping and other kinds of concentrate.

Examples of the Berkshire Roots consumption offerings were displayed on a table, with Nuciforo noting the packages were empty. Only those with physician-supplied medical cards can partake of medical marijuana, he said.

In April 2017, Massachusetts had about 34,000 medical marijuana card holders, persons permitted to use pot for health reasons. That jumped to over 54,000 as of April of this year, Nuciforo said.

“The market is basically everybody. You’ve got people between the ages of 20 and 29 and you’ve got people between the ages of 60 and 69 and even older,” using medical marijuana, he said.

Some seek medically prescribed marijuana for illnesses like cancer or glaucoma, others for depression or anxiety or just to relax, he said.

Brian Peruta of Lenox said he found the forum helpful in terms of thinking about dealing with issues like legalization of marijuana for recreational use and how that affects staffing and drug screening. (see video above)

Peruta works for a Dublin, Ohio-based company called Fast Switch that provides information technology staffing, he said.

“I found the information that was provided by the gentleman in the front about when things were going to happen and how things were going to happen, probably most beneficial,” Peruta said.

Christine Mariconti of Lenox, who said she works in the hospitality industry, said she attended the forum to get a sense of how the business community felt about the marijuana industry.

“It gave me a broader insight as to who the users are and what will be coming in the future,” Mariconti said.

The forum delivered a lot of helpful information to Berkshire businesses, said Erika Allison, 1Berkshire director of member services.

“What we’ve noticed was that a lot of our members in the tourism industry, hospitality industry, were here and Berkshire Roots presented some really fascinating information that I think everybody in the room was benefiting from learning about how these new regulations that come into effect in July could directly impact their business,” Allison said.

“The Berkshires” is not just Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Clark Art Institute or destinations like Herman Melville’s home “Arrowhead” in Pittsfield and Edith Wharton’s “The Mount” in Lenox. It’s also old cities like North Adams and Pittsfield, and familiar towns like Lee (“the outlets”) and Stockbridge (known to many from James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”).

All 32 cities and towns in Berkshire County approved the 2016 ballot question that legalized recreational marijuana and the 2012 ballot question that legalized marijuana for medical use in Massachusetts.

Officials with the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission said Thursday they expect to issue licenses to permit recreational marijuana businesses to operate in July.

As of Wednesday, 53 applicants from 28 companies or individuals had submitted the entire application to open a marijuana business in Massachusetts.

Indeed, said Nuciforo, the marijuana industry in Massachusetts is as heavily regulated as it is fledgling.

In 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health required that medical marijuana companies be fully integrated, which means they must be capable of on-site growth, processing, packaging and dispensing of pot, he said.

Of the 181 applicants for medical marijuana licenses, only 13 met all the requirements to be licensed, he said.

“We had a lot of people jumping into this game and just a few were able to crack the code,” Nuciforo said.

Public opinion has declared its embrace of legalizing marijuana. The states that have approved marijuana for both medical and recreational use are Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, California, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, he said.

“This exists not because the politicians wanted to do it. This exists because the voters made it happen,” said Nuciforo, nevertheless adding, “This industry is very new. This industry is extremely new.”

As a result, Massachusetts approved recreational marijuana in 2016, but licenses have yet to be issued. And it could be into next year or later that the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission addresses practices like home delivery and permitting on-site consumption.

Major issues clouding marijuana’s future, colliding with its public popularity, are  federal law and the banks.

Federal law still makes marijuana use illegal despite states opting for legalization. What that means remains unclear.

“There’s a lot of friction there,” Nuciforo said.

Under President Barack Obama, he said, the practice of the U.S. Justice Department was if someone was living in a state where marijuana was made legal and they were abiding by laws, not involved in dealing to children or other crimes, “and you’re not engaged in bad acts, if you were in compliance with state law, the feds were going to leave you alone.”

That changed with the election of President Donald Trump. In January, the Justice Department issued a memo that said federal marijuana enforcement would return to the “rule of the law” and the rescission of previous guidance documents.

Banks are spooked into avoiding the marijuana industry because the product remains illegal under federal law. That forces such businesses to search for the few lending institutions that will provide financing for a marijuana-based establishment or in most cases at the moment, relying on cash — bulky, out in the open cash.

“Most banks still won’t touch it. You can use debit cards in some cases, but this is still a cash business,” Nuciforo said.

Help could be on the way, but how much and when remain unclear. The U.S. Congress is considering a measure to ease the federal ban on marijuana, to encourage banks to do business with the cannabis industry. The plan “would ensure states have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana, without federal interference,” according to an Associated Press (AP) story on the Chicago Sun Times website Thursday.

“The shortage of banking services has been a major obstacle to the industry, often forcing businesses to conduct sales and pay vendors and taxes in cash, sometimes in vast amounts that can become targets for criminals,” the AP story said.