MA: With A Mouse click, Pot Licensing Will Kick Off

Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren

On Monday at noon, decades of debate all come down to this: a click of a computer mouse by a state technology contractor.

With that, the Massachusetts state government’s system for legal pot use will blink to life, and businesses can begin applying for licenses to grow, process, and sell cannabis to adults 21 and older.

The behind-the-scenes milestone will not have an immediate impact on consumers. But it does mark the beginning of a process that regulators expect will lead to the debut of recreational pot sales in July.

And for longtime activists, it’s a moment some believed might never arrive.

“I speculated this could happen, but I never dreamed that I would live to see it,” said Lester Grinspoon, an 89-year-old former Harvard psychiatry professor who in the 1970s helped found the movement that culminated in voters’ decision in 2016 to legalize the drug. “It certainly is gratifying.”

On Monday, the application process will open to certain businesses that qualify for expedited review: medical marijuana dispensaries that are already open or have a provisional permit, and so-called economic empowerment applicants — companies that are either led by, employ, or benefit communities that had high rates of arrests for drug crimes. This is part of a broader effort to redress racial disparities in the past enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

Qualifying companies will be allowed to submit full license applications beginning April 16 for any type of marijuana business. Next, on May 1, the state will begin accepting applications from cultivation firms, craft marijuana-growing cooperatives, and other small businesses. Finally, retail stores, makers of marijuana-derived products, and transportation companies can begin applying June 1.

Medical dispensaries, especially those already open and serving patients, are champing at the bit to add a recreational license to their operations.

“We’ve got our incorporating documents, financial statements, operating agreements — all that stuff — ready to go,” said Norton Arbelaez, director of government affairs for New England Treatment Access, a medical marijuana group that operates dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline and has a cultivation operation in Franklin.

Arbelaez said the company is already changing its processes, such as redesigning its packages for edible marijuana products for a new warning label, to comply with regulations issued by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

However, Arbelaez and others in the cannabis business agree that the main challenge for operators won’t be getting through the state licensing system, but rather through city and town halls.

Before they can get a state recreational pot license, companies must find locations that comply with municipal zoning, hold a public hearing, and negotiate a so-called “host community agreement” with local officials. Many predict this strong system of local control, plus the five- to six-month period required to grow marijuana, will mean that very few cannabis stores will be ready to open this summer.

“Ultimately, municipalities are the gatekeepers,” Arbelaez said.

Nonetheless, the start of the application process brings with it a new sense of momentum, following a six-month delay imposed by the Legislature and a monthslong debate over the nitty-gritty of the rules for the recreational industry.

“It’s an exciting step,” said Steve Hoffman, chairman of the cannabis commission. “It’s starting to become real.”

Hoffman said state technology contractors and commission staff would be stress-testing the online system over the weekend to ensure it can handle a flood of submissions.

But the agency’s meager staff — just nine people today, eventually swelling to about 37 — may be the bigger constraint on how applications are processed. Hoffman pledged the small crew will work long hours to keep a backlog of applications from building.

Hoffman, who previously led software firms in the private sector, added that while he was confident the system should be able to handle a large volume, “the tech gods do have their own mind.”

Kamani Jefferson, head of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumers Council, which represents pot consumers, said he was concerned about municipal foot-dragging and local zoning rules that favor established operators.

Still, Jefferson said, he felt relief that the long journey to legalization seemed to be nearing an end.

“You feel it in the air,” Jefferson said. “You feel it in conversations with consumers and potential business owners. It’s something new; it’s exciting.

“It’s not going to be overnight, but it’s definitely here in Massachusetts.”