Back in 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure that would allow the option for municipalities to bring marijuana cafes, or “social consumption sites,” to town, where people can gather and use cannabis together, Amsterdam-style. Now, over half a decade later, a legislative move has inched the state closer to making them a reality.
“The intent of the initiative that was passed by voters was to allow these, dependent upon the vote of the people of a community,” said Jim Borghesani, spokesperson for the 2016 ballot question to bring recreational marijuana to Massachusetts, and a consultant for the cannabis industry. “The legislation is effective in giving towns that voice that they need to determine if they want these or not.”
The cafes have not begun popping up in the Bay State because of a legal technicality that prevented cities and towns from being able to vote to bring these cafes within their borders.
Last week, the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy favorably reported out a bill that would clear that blockage, as well as tightening restrictions on contracts between marijuana businesses and host communities and creating a Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund.
The program’s regulatory framework is already in place through the Cannabis Control Commission. Once the legislative change becomes law, between six and 12 municipalities could opt into the three-year pilot program. Licenses would be granted to those from certain economically disadvantaged groups, “microbusinesses” and “craft marijuana cooperatives.”
Although the list of interested cities and towns is not yet available, the municipalities of Amherst, North Adams, Provincetown, Somerville and Springfield have already participated in a working group on the subject and could be first in line to receive the licenses.
Former Boston City Council member Tito Jackson, now CEO of cannabis company Apex Noire, also expressed interest in opening a site in Boston, which he said could help “our towns and cities to get their parks back.”
He and other cannabis retailers have already begun partnering with ride-sharing services and area hotels to offer discounts to those too impaired to drive home.
Still, Dennis Galvin, president of the Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement and a retired major from the State Police, is concerned.
“Unless they could come up with some sort of an instrument to be able to establish whether or not somebody was impaired, they shouldn’t touch this,” he said, referring to the lack of a Breathalyzer-like test for marijuana use.
“Anybody that’s been in this business and has had to cover fatal accidents and see people get killed in these things — I don’t think anybody’s gonna go along with that idea,” he said.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said Cape communities like the ones he represents “welcome an influx of summer visitors, and we’re seeing an array of recreational cannabis dispensaries opening up. But we currently have a circumstance where visitors who come to our communities can legally purchase cannabis; however, they have nowhere to consume it.”
Cyr, who’s introduced legislation on the subject, said these cafes have a low upstart cost, which will benefit small businesses. He called the initial rollout of recreational cannabis in the state “really advantaged (toward) large-scale players with corporate backing and investors, and we’ve not seen the benefits flowing to smaller-scale entrepreneurs, particularly to the communities who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.”
He added that providing a public space to use cannabis will allow those who can’t afford to own their own home, those with children at home, those living in public housing and others struggling to find a place to consume cannabis safely will have a place to do so.
Borghesani, the cannabis consultant, said that these cafes will be subject to similar laws governing dispensaries, i.e., without windows inside to see what’s being sold or big signs advertising the product.
Zach Ments, who owns the Piping Plover dispensary in Wellfleet, said that although he doesn’t have any immediate plans to open a marijuana cafe, he has ideas.
He’s envisioned a partnership with a local chef friend to serve a multi-course cannabis-infused meal, or a cannabis-fueled yoga and massage studio (which wouldn’t be allowed under the pilot program). He’s also thought about a “brewery-style” cafe, “where we could have some outdoor plants and indoor plants, and people could come and see the cultivation process and then have samples on-site.”
“People come in and ask all sorts of questions about, you know, how much do I take? What do I do? And you could learn how to smoke, or you could learn how, take an edible, the right dose,” he said. “Just being able to sample a little bit and experience it in a safe environment would be pretty cool.”