Buying pot in Massachusetts will soon be as legal as picking up a six pack of beer or carton of cigarettes.
But even as business owners jockey for the first licenses to legally sell and grow recreational marijuana, many cities and towns have been yanking out the welcome mat.
More than half of Massachusetts communities and all but five on the South Shore have placed bans or moratoriums on adult-use marijuana sales. It’s a decision that industry leaders say could hurt the budding business and will deprive cities and towns of hundreds of thousands a year in new tax revenue.
Scituate on Tuesday became the latest South Shore town to ban retail pot shops, leaving Quincy, Rockland, Halifax, Plymouth and Marshfield as possible locations for would-be retailers.
The state Cannabis Control Commission controls retail and cultivation licenses, but cities and towns are deciding where and whether to allow retailers to set up shop.
The Legislature revised the voter-approved ballot question, which legalized marijuana sales to adults 21 and older, to give cities and towns the authority to keep retailers out of the community. In towns where the majority of voters opposed the state ballot question to legalize retail marijuana sales, governing bodies like town meeting or selectmen can ban retailers. A ban requires an election referendum in towns where the majority of voters supported the state ballot question to legalize pot.
Lawmakers also increased the amount of sales tax marijuana retailers will pay to cities and towns to 6 percent of gross sales, but nearly half of Massachusetts 351 cities and towns have resisted the promise of additional tax revenue.
Jim Borghesani of the Marijuana Policy Project said those towns are missing out on a huge revenue opportunity.
“It’s likely that the average retail cannabis store is going to return easily more than $100,000 to the town in new taxes annually and the figure will likely be much higher than that — 6 percent total local tax off of gross sales,” he said.
Massachusetts’ legal marijuana market, on track to begin July 1, could be worth $1.1 billion by 2020, which could translate to tens of millions in new tax revenue for local cities and towns, according to marijuana-market economists ArcView Group.
On Tuesday, the Cannabis Control Commission approved the first 20 of 55 dispensaries seeking priority application status, including one in Rockland, Health Circle.
In all, 148 dispensaries and 300 candidates for priority licenses under other provisions of the law have started applications. Applicants granted priority status will be first in line for retail marijuana licenses. Priority status enrollment ends at midnight Sunday. Cultivators and certain small business can submit applications for state licenses beginning May 1. Manufacturers, distributors, and retail stores can apply for their licenses starting on June 1.
The bans do not include medical marijuana cultivation centers or dispensaries; but registered marijuana dispensaries, which have first pick of the recreational licenses, appear to be shunning cities and towns where recreational sales are banned.
Brian Hurley, CEO and founder of GreenCare Therapeutics, a medical marijuana center, said his company wanted to locate in a town where recreational marijuana sales will be allowed.
“That was one of the really big reasons we ended up honing in on Rockland. They were amenable to it,” he said.
GreenCare Therapeutics, Rockland’s first dispensary, is on target to open for medicinal sales by the end of the year, Hurley said. Since the dispensary has been granted a provisional certification by the state as it finishes construction, it is eligible to apply early for a recreational retail sales license.
Hurley said he’s in the process of submitting his application for priority status with the state Cannabis Control Commission. As of April 10, 55 other dispensaries in the late stages of permitting with the Department of Public Health had applied for priority application status, state records show.
Before choosing its location at 53 Airport Park Drive in Rockland, Hurley said the company wanted to open in Plymouth, but the town was slow to adopt a zoning bylaw for retail sales. Plymouth now has a zoning bylaw that would allow up to four retail shops in its industrial district.
“We’ve already granted one retail permit and another is pending,” Plymouth Director of Planning and Development Lee Hartman said.
Halifax Town Administrator Charlie Seelig said he has no concerns about being overrun by pot retailers because state law limits the number in any given town to 20 percent of liquor stores there. For Halifax, that means two. There is no limit on the number of cultivation centers, but the town has restricted the facilities to its industrial zones.
Halifax is in late stage talks with Four Daughters Compassionate Care, which wants to built a 32,000-square-foot growing facility off River Street in the southern section of town.
Four Daughters has applied for a special permit for retail sales in Plymouth, but Halifax would still make money through a proposed agreement to collect 3 percent of gross wholesale sales from the grower.
But for most South Shore towns, especially those with the picturesque Main Street appeal, choosing whether or not to allow retail pot shops boils down to an issue of character.
On Tuesday, Scituate police Chief Mike Stewart told town meeting voters that unlike neighboring Marshfield, Scituate doesn’t have an industrial park in which to hide the marijuana industry.
“It’s going to be storefront. Whether it’s in Greenbush of North Scituate or Scituate Harbor, it’s going to be a storefront,” he said.
Hurley said he worries a lack of options will discourage customers.
“It will take access to get the consumer to stop doing what they’ve always been doing, which is going to the black market,” he said. “We’d much rather have other quality shops close to us because demand is so high that we really all have to be able to provide enough product to get consumer to buy legally.”
The marijuana industry faced a similar patchwork of bans and moratoriums in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, where pot has been legal since 2012. Six years later, a number of communities have reconsidered and the legal pot market in each state is now worth over $1 billion.
“When it comes to these bans and moratoriums, I think time is on the side of the people who want new policies on cannabis,” Borghesani. “I have no doubt the bans will be lifted with new groups of voters who simply don’t have the same reefer madness mentality.”
Towns that will allow pot: Quincy, Plymouth, Halifax, Marshfield, Rockland
It’s banned in: Weymouth, Braintree, Sciutate, Norwell, Hanover, Milton, Hull, Pembroke, Whitman, Duxbury, Stoughton
These towns have yet to decide: Hingham, Abington, Cohasset.