MA: Worcester County Emerging As Marijuana Central

Photo Credit: Richard Vogel

With the July 1 target date for legal pot sales looming, Worcester County is emerging as marijuana central in Massachusetts.

According to data presented at the Cannabis Control Commission meeting on Tuesday, residents of the central Massachusetts county that stretches from the state’s northern border to the Connecticut and Rhode Island state lines have filed 16 applications for licenses to sell, grow, or manufacture marijuana. The commission also wants to locate its permanent headquarters in Worcester, which could add to the county’s image as the center of the nascent industry in Massachusetts.

No other county has more than five applicants. Berkshire County has one and Suffolk County only has two. There are none from Barnstable County, where most towns have enacted bans. No one from Nantucket nor Martha’s Vineyard has begun the four-part application process yet, even though voters on both islands approved the statewide referendum in 2016. The lack of applicants, though, may have a lot to do with the obstacles those on the island face in testing and acquiring marijuana products because of federal laws that would prohibit transporting pot by air or sea.

Steven Hoffman, chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, said he’s not concerned about the dearth of applicants “at this early stage” of the process, noting there’s still time for applications to come in. He said some potential applicants have put off filing applications while the work with local officials.

“It is a question of where the RMDs (registered marijuana dispensaries) are located, since a lot of the applications we have are from existing dispensaries,” Hoffman said. “One of the clear objectives we’ve stated is to make this accessible broadly throughout the state. Six months, 12 months from now, if we’re seeing communities that seem to be underserved, that would be a concern.”

According to commission executive director Shawn Collins, there are 51 applications in the pipeline from 28 entities, with most of them looking to open stores, growing facilities, or manufacturing plants, with others applying for niche licenses such as research facilities, testing laboratories, and transporters.

Under state law and commission regulations, existing medical marijuana dispensaries and those who meet standards for “economic empowerment priority” aimed at minorities and communities disproportionately impacted by drug laws were given a head start on applications and licensing. The licensing process opened to the public on Friday.

The commission did not identify what towns the applications came from nor the names of the applicants. No licenses have been issued yet; that will likely happen in the next couple weeks. Many legal marijuana advocates have been eyeing July 1 as the start date for sales, but Hoffman reiterated his warning that while it’s the commission’s hope to see stores open by then it’s not required.

“July 1 is not a legislatively mandated deadline,” he said. “I do feel like we’re on track.”

Commissioner Shaleen Title wondered why everyone was so focused on July 1 as the beginning since the commission has been clear that date is a goal not a promise. “I tried to go back and find out how it was set on July 1,” Title said. “It’s like 4-20; there’s five different versions.”

Part of the delay also has to do with the statutory process, which requires background checks for both corporations and individuals, as well as a 60-day review by municipal authorities to certify that the company has complied with all local regulations. The commission on Tuesday put into place regulations governing background checks for applicants. Everyone listed on an application is required to be fingerprinted and undergo an extensive background check looking for civil and criminal judgments as well as license denials and forfeitures in other jurisdictions. Commercial entities are also subject to investigation by the commission’s vendor.

The commission approved a plan that would relieve corporate entities from paying the $250 cost of background checks but require individuals to pay the $400 price of their background check and the $35 fee for fingerprinting.