State regulators agree to new approach on cannabis cafes

Marijuana regulators voted Monday to scrap years-old plans that called for rolling out cannabis cafes and other social consumption sites with a 12-municipality pilot program, a step that one official said could bring that voter-approved segment of the industry online “a little quicker.”

Nine months after a new state law outlined a process for cities and towns to authorize on-site consumption of marijuana products, the Cannabis Control Commission pivoted away from past regulations that would have constrained the launch to a dozen cities and towns.

CCC staff will now set out to craft a regulatory framework awarding licenses to locations where patrons will be able to purchase and enjoy marijuana products on the premises, in contrast from the existing retail stores that have been open for years.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo, a member of a working group that recommended the change in approach, said the decision to drop the pilot program encourages municipalities to decide whether they will opt in on social consumption and allow regulators to devote their attention to longer-term questions about the industry rather than operation of a limited pilot program.

“It’s sort of a parallel track. It’s going to allow us to create [social consumption] a little quicker, but this is still not going to be done overnight,” Camargo told reporters after the commission’s meeting. “Everyone’s wondering: What is it? What is the regulatory framework? What are the licenses? I think that now, we can really start thinking about what does that look like, especially now that we don’t have a pilot project in place.”

“If we would have had a pilot project in place, then we’d have to think about a pilot license, and a pilot license would get stuck in our regs for the next three to five or six years, knowing how things move slowly throughout the process,” she added.

After a lengthy discussion, Commissioners Ava Callendar Concepcion, Camargo, and Stebbins voted in favor of eliminating the pilot program language from the commission’s recreational marijuana regulations, as did CCC Chair Shannon O’Brien.

While she supported the change, O’Brien said she still has several unanswered questions about how the broader regulations will address the risks of secondhand smoke inside marijuana cafes, impairment, and promoting business success for equity applicants, microbusinesses, and craft cooperatives, who under existing regulations will have exclusive access to social consumption licenses for the first 36 months.

“If we don’t get this right during the exclusivity period, I think that we could be harming that opportunity for people,” O’Brien told reporters.

Commissioner Kimberly Roy voted present, saying she did not have “enough information around public safety, public health, and equity” impacts.

“Sometimes, even things done with the best intentions can go awry, whether it’s the delivery operator – which was done with the best intentions, right, to remove barriers and to help people and to create equity,” she said. “Microbusinesses were a license type that was done with the best intentions. Craft cooperative farmers, same thing. And these have either not worked or struggled or they’re failing.”

All other commissioners voted in favor.

The ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana use that voters approved in 2016 included language authorizing marijuana consumption “on the premises where sold” and at special licensed events, but cannabis cafes have yet to open to the public nearly seven years later.

Regulators pumped the brakes in 2018 after then-Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, who has succeeded Baker in the corner office, raised concerns about the pace of the rollout.

Baker for years also sought to overhaul the state’s drugged-driving laws but met resistance in the Legislature.

In 2019, the CCC’s working group recommended launching social consumption with a pilot program, and officials also determined that the Legislature needed to update state law to give cities and towns the mechanism they needed to authorize on-site cannabis use. That change became part of a wide-ranging law Baker signed last year, which also boosted oversight on the host community agreements between marijuana businesses and municipalities.

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