It’s not exactly the California Gold Rush of the mid-1850s, but Worcester and other Massachusetts communities are bracing for another gold rush of sorts.
It’s the rush to get in on the ground floor of what is expected to be a potentially lucrative recreational/adult-use marijuana industry.
The state Cannabis Control Commission will begin accepting applications for marijuana establishments next week (April 1). Licenses will be issued by the commission beginning in June and businesses could be up and running as early as July 1.
Interested parties have already been busy scoping out Worcester to lay claim to suitable locations for a retail storefront or private social club, or facilities for product manufacturing, cultivating and micro-businesses. There will even be independent testing labs and research facilities for these businesses.
In effect, the potential is there for a whole new industry to sprout up in Worcester virtually overnight.
In advance of that, the city of Worcester is moving to put into place zoning regulations for siting adult-use marijuana businesses. The city wants to be able to control through zoning and a special permit process where those businesses can operate, but it can’t do it in a way that is unreasonable or impractical.
Under state law, Worcester is required to facilitate the establishment of up to 15 marijuana retail stores. That figure is based on 20 percent of the number of off-premises alcohol licenses the city is authorized to issue, such as those for package stores.
“The city has to provide sufficient opportunities for the location of these 15 retail establishments” said Stephen Rolle, director of the city’s Division of Planning and Regulatory Services.
Just how this shakes down in Worcester remains to be seen, but city officials are ready for it.
“The city is prepared to welcome the adult-use marijuana industry into Worcester in a strong and thoughtful way,” said Jacob Sanders, who handles intergovernmental and municipal initiatives in the city manager’s office.
As expected, there is some apprehension, especially among Worcester’s elected officials.
Given that Worcester is the state’s second largest city, some fear it could become a magnet for adult-use marijuana sales in Central Massachusetts, especially since several area towns have voted to either not allow them or have put a moratorium on them.
Other councilors, meanwhile, fear marijuana businesses could end up being concentrated in certain parts of the city, while other areas have none.
District 3 Councilor George J. Russell pointed out that under the zoning regulations proposed by City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., marijuana-related businesses would pretty much be kept out of much of the west side of the city, while they would be allowed in many areas in the east side.
“I say we should be spreading these uses across the city as much as possible,” Mr. Russell said.
District 2 Councilor Candy-Mero Carlson agrees the biggest fear is that certain parts of Worcester could become oversaturated with these businesses.
“Nobody is looking not to have these facilities in Worcester,” she said. “We all know the people voted this in; that’s fine and that’s not the issue. The issue is, at least from my perspective, that some parts of the city will not have any of these businesses while others will have many. I just want to make sure this is done in a fair and equitable way.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, District 1 Councilor Sean M. Rose welcomes the new marijuana industry. While many have been focusing on the potential negative side to it, he sees a lot of positives.
In addition to the new jobs it will bring, he sees it as providing a much-needed new revenue stream for the city that can end up helping those neighborhoods where these businesses are located and the city as a whole. The new revenue will be derived from community host agreements the city signs with those businesses and a 3 percent local tax assessed on their sales.
Mr. Rose pointed out that medical marijuana businesses contributed $1 million toward the city budget through community host agreements and he believes that adult-use marijuana has the potential of bringing in even more money.
“I’m not opposed to having any of these shops in my district,” he said. “I know I’m in the minority on this. It’s clear that people have concerns and legitimate fears and I respect that. But there are two things that jump out for me: The people voted for this and this is a revenue issue.
“If we’re able to get some kind of financial mitigation to help out the districts where these businesses are located, then we could have money for things like street and sidewalk repairs, three-decker porch repairs, parks, youth engagement programs and Indian Lake.”
Mr. Rose said he is concerned that if the city becomes too aggressive in trying to box out marijuana-related businesses through zoning, then it could end up creating a legal nightmare as happened with its ill-fated panhandling ordinance.
He said the city has so many funding needs, but unless it raises or creates new taxes it doesn’t have the revenue to meet those needs. As a result, the city often has to take money away from existing programs to fund them.
“I’ve been a little disappointed on how we’ve approached this because this is a great opportunity for us to generate new revenue,” Mr. Rose said. “Hopefully, we won’t create barriers to those revenues because they are not necessary or in the best interest of the city. Putting up barriers may be shortsighted.
“I’m excited at the potential revenue this can generate,” he added. “And, I’m also always on the side of what people voted for, whether you agree with it or not.”
Interestingly, the Planning Board last week recommended modifications to the zoning regulations for siting adult-use marijuana establishments that are slightly less restrictive in a few instances than what had been sought by the city administration. But the City Council will have the final say on those regulations.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty said he understands the concerns people have but believes the zoning regulations recommended by the city manager are good and will accomplish what everyone wants.
“I know some people are concerned about this and want to be cautious; I get that,” he said. “The manager has been very cautious in his recommendations and hopefully it will work out well for the city of Worcester and everyone will be happy.”
Let the rush begin.