A milestone year for the Massachusetts cannabis industry is ending. What’s next? See our Q&A with regulators

In 2021, home delivery of cannabis rolled out in Massachusetts as the state’s industry surpassed $2 billion in gross sales and hit the fifth anniversary of recreational legalization.

Despite those milestones, there’s still room for the industry to grow and become more equitable. The host community agreement process is cited by entrepreneurs as a major challenge. Though many have advocated for an equity fund or grant program, such dollars are not yet available. Cannabis delivery companies have been advocating for a change to the two-driver rule in delivery vehicles, saying it stands in the way of profitability.

And then there’s stigma. Though cannabis retailers are now dotted across the state, some still view consumption of the plant negatively.

MassLive asked the state Cannabis Control Commission questions about successes in the industry so far, a pending bill and predictions for the future. Here’s what the five commissioners and Executive Director Shawn Collins had to say:

Executive Director Shawn Collins

Q: Recreational cannabis has been legal for five years in Massachusetts and retail shops have been open for three. What are the biggest successes so far?

A: Looking back at our body of work over the last several years, I hope Massachusetts is proud that we have simultaneously constructed an agency and migrated and established a newly regulated industry where neither existed before. When retail sales first launched three years ago we implemented a fully regulated marketplace, something not common in other jurisdictions that legalized simultaneously or after Massachusetts. This included all facets of a licensed supply chain, quality control testing, and seed-to-sale tracking. Overall, our agency has grown from the first, five inaugural Commissioners who went to work without staff or desks, to become a model agency for other legalizing states when it comes to our sustained emphasis on equity programming, the preservation of public health and safety, innovative government that is both responsive and open-minded with its data, and robust and honest research. In my opinion, our biggest success is that we have worked diligently to build an agency, and an industry, of which Massachusetts can be proud.

Q: What are your predictions and hopes for the industry in the next five years?

A: Over the next five years, my hope is that the playing field gets a little more level and people who have dreams of opening a Marijuana Establishment can find a more viable pathway. Cannabis has not yet achieved “small business” status in the same sense as other downtown anchors such as bars, restaurants, and traditional retail shops. This is due to several factors, most notably the lack of available capital, severe tax implications, and the strict cost of regulatory compliance. All of these are real challenges that are not easy to confront in the current legal environment. Overcoming these hurdles will take a fair amount of time, political will and courage, and a community of advocates that sees value and opportunity within this emerging industry. It was only five years ago that the same approach in Massachusetts accomplished legalization in the first place, so there is reason to be optimistic for more change.

Chairman Steven J. Hoffman

Q: Recreational cannabis has been legal for five years in Massachusetts and retail shops have been open for three. What are the biggest successes so far?

The Commonwealth’s biggest success to date has been the Commission’s smooth start-up and expansion of the regulated industry. The fact that a recent poll found 61% of respondents feel legalization has had a positive impact on Massachusetts corroborates that Marijuana Establishments have successfully contributed to economic development for many municipalities throughout the state while preserving public health and safety. Licensees have also generated more than $600 million of incremental tax revenue for the state and its cities and towns. Most importantly, the regulated marketplace, which includes licensed businesses as well as ancillary service providers like construction and HVAC installation, has created significant employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for a diverse and deserving group of residents.

A: What do you think can help further reduce stigma around cannabis use?

Despite the fact that Massachusetts legalized medical-use marijuana in 2012 and adult-use in 2016, a strong stigma still exists that cannot be legislated or regulated away. Although we know that takes time, there still has been significant progress as citizens across the state observe the roll-out of professionally run businesses that contribute positively to the well-being of their host cities and towns. The fact that a legal industry, effectively regulated by the Commission, has operated without causing any of the adverse public health and safety outcomes that opponents feared has also significantly contributed to a reduction of the stigma. I expect more progress as the marketplace continues to mature, but recognize that federal legalization will be necessary to eliminate the stigma that remains.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo

Q: What is the biggest obstacle for those pursuing a cannabis license in Massachusetts? How could the commission ease that burden?

A: Based on my experience listening to constituent feedback and monitoring licensees, the biggest obstacle to participating in this industry is access to capital. Small business loans, grants, and services available to other types of businesses are not available to marijuana operators. In many cases, this has encouraged predatory lending, led to a lack of diversity and inclusion in the marketplace, and, most importantly, prevented individuals who have been harmed by prohibition from getting involved now that marijuana is legal, which is mandated by state law.

Additionally, obtaining a Host Community Agreement (HCA) from a city or town in order to identify a business location is another major obstacle for license applicants. Equitable municipal ordinances need to be part of the local licensing process, which is why transparency and education around the political process is deeply needed. Overcoming these two major obstacles will allow for a more equitable industry in accordance with state law. Over the past four years, the Cannabis Control Commission (Commission) has initiated a training program, offered reduced fees and expedited licensing review, carved out certain license types, and required that all licensees incorporate plans for diverse hiring practices and to support disproportionately impacted communities – all toward the goal of providing license applicants with resources to alleviate some of the hurdles that remain.

The Commission will continue to educate members of the public about the safe, legal, regulated industry that now exists to reduce the ongoing stigma still associated with medical- and adult-use cannabis. To that end, the Commission’s public awareness campaign, MoreAboutMJ.org, provides the public with resources that encourage responsible adult use of cannabis and prevent underage consumption. However, normalizing cannabis fully will take both public and private collaboration, in addition to federal legalization.

Q: What are your predictions and hopes for the industry in the next five years?

I hope Massachusetts creates a successful Social Equity Fund to help license hopefuls who were harmed by previous marijuana prohibition before this legislative session ends in 2022. We all know that the Massachusetts Legislature made history as the first legislative body in the nation to mandate full participation in the legal industry by disproportionately harmed applicants and to ensure equity. However, we have fallen behind when it comes to creating pathways for those Social Equity Program Participants and Economic Empowerment Applicants to access capital.

The Commission was intentional about creating policies to lower barriers to entering the adult-use industry, including avoiding a statewide cap on licenses, ensuring that adult-use licenses are not required to be vertically integrated to make them more accessible to applicants with less capital, and requiring all licensees to implement Plans to Positively Impact Disproportionately Harmed Communities and Diversity Plans to ensure inclusivity in their business operations, among other critical policy decisions. The Commission certified 122 license applicants with Economic Empowerment status and created the first Social Equity Program in the nation to provide free technical assistance to more than 400 qualified applicants—two programs which offer benefits including the ability to jump our license queue, pay lower fees, and apply for delivery and social consumption licenses years before other general applicants. These prospective businesses have used many of the tools already at their disposal, but a Social Equity Fund will help them finally cross the finish line to opening.

My prediction is that what we now call “ancillary” service providers—which do not need a license to operate in the regulated industry but support licensed Marijuana Establishments and Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers—will fully develop into another pathway for disadvantaged businesses to participate through our equity mandate, and create a more inclusive cannabis ecosystem in Massachusetts. For example, experts in the fields of horticulture, energy and efficiency, security, IT, printing, packaging, and other innovative business solutions, are all needed to ensure this industry continues to operate safely, effectively, and equitably. Every month, my colleagues and I look for innovative Diversity Plans and Positive Impact Plans from licensees, and the hiring of diverse contractors that represent disproportionately harmed communities is another way businesses can comply with our regulations.

Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion

Q: Gov. Charlie Baker has re-filed legislation that would equalize marijuana with alcohol in driving impaired cases. Do you support the bill?

A: I’m still in the process of reviewing the Governor’s bill. Public safety on our roadways is critical, however, any legislation that seeks to govern the ways in which law enforcement and the justice system engage with cannabis consumers must be thoroughly vetted for any unintentional implications on communities that have been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated due to the War on Drugs.

Q: What do you think can help further reduce stigma around cannabis use?

A: Normalizing cannabis operators as legitimate businesses has a huge impact in reducing the stigma around the legal, regulated industry and cannabis use overall. We now have seven licensed delivery businesses in the Commonwealth: six marijuana couriers and one microbusiness with a delivery endorsement. We’re seeing multiple couriers and delivery operators progress through the Commission’s licensing process every month. I think the expansion of delivery across Massachusetts will go a long way towards showing the public that regulated cannabis businesses bring positive contributions to their communities, and that legal cannabis products can be safely delivered to their front door – just like any other product they might purchase.

Commissioner Kimberly Roy

Q: Gov. Charlie Baker has re-filed legislation that would equalize marijuana with alcohol in driving impaired cases. Do you support the bill?

A: Yes, I fully support the Thomas L. Clardy Bill recently re-filed by the Baker/Polito Administration. The Legislature passed MGL c.94G, Regulation of the Use and Distribution of Marijuana Not Medically Prescribed four years ago. Since then, licensees have tallied more than $2.3 billion in sales and generated millions in tax revenue. Unfortunately, public safety laws have not kept up with the public policy around the legalization of cannabis and its ability to impair drivers.

The bill filed by the Administration honors Massachusetts State Trooper Thomas L. Clardy. On March 16, 2016 Trooper Clardy was conducting a traffic stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Charlton when his parked cruiser was hit by a speeding motorist who swerved across three lanes of traffic. THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was detected in the motorist’s blood — a preventable crime resulting in the untimely death of 44-year-old Trooper Clardy. An eleven-year member of the state police and a United States Marine Corps veteran, he is survived by his wife and six children.

Originally filed in 2019, the Clardy Bill is based on findings and recommendations of the legislatively mandated Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving, a diverse group of experts who were charged in 2017 with studying the regulation and testing of operating under the influence of marijuana, narcotic drugs, and depressant or stimulant substances. Enumerating the need for more parity around alcohol use and driving, the bill includes provisions to expand Municipal Police and Drug Recognition Expert training, develop educational materials and programming on drug impairment to share with trial court judges, adopt implied consent laws, and authorizes the courts to take judicial notice surrounding THC and driving impaired.

It is simple: no one drives safely when under the influence of any impairing substance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, THC affects coordination, judgment, and balance — skills every operator needs to drive safely. To prevent future tragedies, the time has come for the Legislature to pass the Trooper Thomas L. Clardy Bill.

Q: What would you say is the biggest priority for the commission in the next year or two?

A: As the Commissioner who was appointed to serve in our agency’s public health seat, engaging with constituents about those issues will always guide my current and future priorities. Additionally, the Commission continues to discuss solutions to ensure full participation in the cannabis industry from communities that were disproportionately impacted by previous cannabis prohibition.

As our marketplace continues to emerge and evolve, we will always prioritize regulating businesses safely, equitably, and effectively, while keeping public health, wellness, and safety front and center. The Commission is committed to following our mission statement, meeting our legislative mandates, and ensuring licensees comply with Massachusetts’ adult and medical use of marijuana regulations.

Commissioner Bruce Stebbins

Q: What is the biggest obstacle for those pursuing a cannabis license in Massachusetts? How could the commission ease that burden?

A: Access to capital remains the biggest hurdle for small operators who are interested in pursuing a Marijuana Establishment license. Insufficient funding may stall entities’ efforts to establish a business, or open them up to predatory loan offers that prevent them from attaining all of the benefits of this newly legal industry. The Commission will continue to advocate for a state-administered Social Equity Fund comprised of public and private resources – similar to mechanisms that other states are already adopting – and continue to monitor for steps in our licensing process that may cause unnecessary delays. We will also continue to enhance our guidance documents so applicants know what the Commission expects throughout the application and licensing process.

Q: What would you say is the biggest priority for the commission in the next year or two?

A: As Massachusetts’ cannabis industry continues to grow, the Commission must maintain adequate resources to provide fair and responsible oversight. To support the safe, accessible, and equitable marketplace voters approved in 2016, our agency must have the necessary means to investigate, monitor, and ensure regulatory compliance of all licensees, which have increased significantly in operation over the last year.

We will also continue to support initiatives that promote diversity within the industry and offer opportunities for those disproportionately impacted by the previous War on Drugs to fully participate now that cannabis is legal. Diversity Plans and Positive Impact Plans are just two examples of ways in which all licensees are required to engage in solutions that further the Commission’s commitment to ensure equity in this space.