MA: Worcester Cannabis Club Raises Concerns

Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley

City officials expressed concern Tuesday that a new members-only cannabis club on Water Street exploited loopholes that allow an unregulated product to be consumed and enabled the club to skirt a public review process.

“I’m not saying he’s broken the law,” said City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. “All we’ve said is we would prefer a bit of transparency here, a little bit of an opportunity … to ask questions.”

Kyle Moon, the general manager of the club called the Summit Lounge, said he welcomed discussion with the city. But he noted repeatedly that he was in compliance with all local and state laws.

“I think everyone has concerns around this and they all need to be brought up and addressed,” said Mr. Moon, 27, of Northbridge. “This is new territory for everyone, but right now we comply with all local ordinances and state regulations.”

The debate comes amid a larger state debate on whether regulators are moving too fast in the rollout of the state’s legal cannabis industry.

Gov. Charles D. Baker Jr. and House Speaker Robert DeLeo are among lawmakers who have called on the Cannabis Control Commission to scale back the industry envisioned in its draft regulations – which includes marijuana cafes, delivery-only marijuana businesses, and the ability for establishments such as cinemas and massage parlors to offer limited marijuana products – at least until an initial retail market takes hold. CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman said Tuesday a phased rollout would be up for debate by the commission.

But the CCC may not resolve any debate in Worcester.

“We only have enforcement over people we license, and we don’t license (the Summit Lounge) so we have no jurisdiction,” CCC spokeswoman Dot Joyce said.

The Summit Lounge opened Friday on Water Street as a club where members can smoke tobacco, cigars and marijuana, which is now legal to consume under Massachusetts law. The club does not sell marijuana or allow its sale on the premises. The opening drew widespread media attention. It also drew the attention of city officials, who said the club did not disclose that it would allow marijuana when it went through the licensing process.

“The occupant of 116 Water Street (The Summit Lounge) did not disclose to the city that he would be operating a private club for the purpose of marijuana consumption,” Mr. Augustus said in a statement Friday night. “He has exploited a loophole in the 2017 Marijuana Act as well as the draft regulations.”

The city manager, Deputy City Solicitor Jennifer H. Beaton, and Jacob Sanders, a member of the city manager’s staff who is the city’s point person for marijuana-related issues, discussed these alleged loopholes in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

The first concern was that the club was allowing consumption of a product that is currently illegal to buy in Massachusetts.

Retail marijuana operations are scheduled to open July 1. Until retail operations open with strict guidelines for the production, distribution and sale of cannabis, legal pot has to come from either an individual’s personal supply – the decriminalization law allows people to grow a certain amount of cannabis in their home – or from a licensed medical marijuana dispensary.

Mr. Augustus said it was unlikely that all the marijuana consumed in the club would come from these two sources, however; and thus much would originate on the black market.

That marijuana could be laced with chemicals or, if it comes in the form of edibles, may not be dosed correctly, raising health and safety concerns.

“It’s the difference between buying a bottle of booze at a local package store rather than a still in the woods,” Mr. Augustus said.

It also leads to neighborhood concerns.

“My concern for the neighborhood is where do you procure these products if there is no regulated licensed product,” Mr. Augustus said. “If you don’t know who (the procurers) are, are they going to be setting up outside this club, around this club?”

A related issue was whether the club exploited a loophole allowing it to forego a public-hearing process established for marijuana-related facilities.

Applicants for a medical marijuana license met with an interdepartmental team to discuss their plans and a public hearing was held before the city issued a letter of non-opposition, city officials said. Any recreational marijuana establishment has to go through the same process, according to the draft regulations of the Cannabis Control Commission. During this process, neighborhood concerns can be addressed and issues such as odors and security must be addressed. But without such a process, neighborhood concerns can remain unresolved.

“There are a myriad of requirements that the recreational marijuana establishment has to follow,” Mr. Sanders said. “This person doesn’t have to follow that criteria.”

Zoning or setback regulations – for instance, minimum setbacks from schools or day care facilities – also may be skirted if the club does not go through this process.

“There’s nothing to stop 800 of these opening up throughout the city right now … across from every day care center, and for everybody to not know it until it’s open,” Mr. Augustus said

He advocated a public process that could weigh the interests of both the club owners and the interests of the neighborhood.

In response to the concerns, Mr. Moon also advocated more discussion.

“I think working together is the way to solve these (issues),” he said in an interview Tuesday evening. “I think everyone has concerns around this and they all need to be brought up and addressed.”

He said he had met with the Worcester police and had discussed shared concerns about preventing sales of marijuana in the club and impaired driving. He said he had also talked with the city manager’s office.

“We’re working with the city. We’re continuing to work with the city,” Mr. Moon said. “It’s not us versus them; we’re coming together as a community … at least that’s what I hope.”