For Cannabis Legalization in New England, It's a Slow Burn
New England may still be the next U.S. frontier for legal cannabis; just don't try shopping for it quite yet.
After early successes for the cannabis industry in western states, the region seemed the next logical foothold. But while its famous independent streak, liberal politics and ample supply of college activism all made for fertile ground, the legalization movement has often collided with old-fashioned Yankee sensibilities — particularly in towns weary of the stigma around pot.
"While a lot of these communities voted for (legalization), they didn't really mean 'down the street from my house.' It was more like, 'Can we have it in the next town over?'" said Jim Smith, a Boston attorney who works with companies seeking commercial licenses in Massachusetts. "The reality is that the next town over also wants it in the next town over."
In Massachusetts, where voters approved of recreational marijuana in November 2016, Sunday is when retail sales are allowed to finally start. But no pot stores have been licensed yet, and only a few may open for business in the coming months. Key factors cited for the delay are community resistance, the need to complete background checks on applicants and the lack of marijuana testing facilities.
In Vermont, possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana becomes legal Sunday, but with no provisions in the law for pot shops, users must either grow it themselves or continue buying from illicit dealers.
Voters in Maine also backed a recreational-marijuana law in 2016 but, partly because of stiff opposition from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, pot shops probably won't open in the state before next year.
"It's definitely frustrating as a consumer who wants to buy this in a safe manner," said Kamani Jefferson of the delays that have plagued the rollout of legal pot in Massachusetts. He has been organizing consumers to push for full implementation of the law so above-board sales can begin.
"I've been fortunate to travel to Oregon, Colorado, California," he said. "It's very convenient to go into a store, talk to someone in a not-sketchy way and understand what you are buying."
Since the 2016 election in Massachusetts that had seemed to settle the matter, dozens of municipalities have voted to outright ban retail marijuana sales, and more than 100 have imposed some type of moratorium while local officials develop zoning rules for the businesses.
Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat who opposed legalization, angered cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs by allowing some municipalities to extend their moratoriums into next year, after previously ruling that they must expire by Dec. 31.
The setbacks can wreak financial havoc with companies that rented space or hired staff in anticipation of earlier openings. Many are "bleeding money," said Smith, the attorney.
State regulators have awarded only a single recreational license, for Sira Naturals, a cultivation facility in Milford. It already grows medical marijuana there and dispenses it at three locations, but it needs local approval before it can apply for licenses to sell retail.
The Cannabis Control Commission could vote as soon as Monday to award a provisional retail license to a medical marijuana dispensary in Leicester, but it's unclear when recreational sales could begin at the site.
The panel's chairman, Steven Hoffman, repeatedly said in the run-up to July 1 that it would not be pressured into meeting an "arbitrary" deadline for opening pot shops, adding he wanted to avoid missteps in other legal marijuana states.
When Colorado became the first state to open stores on Jan. 1, 2014, several outlets closed early that day after running out of inventory and many heard grumbling about high prices from patrons. Supply also exceeded demand when Nevada opened stores last July, forcing emergency regulatory steps to keep legal weed flowing.
Vermont's law taking effect Sunday removes all penalties for possession of up to an ounce of pot and allows residents to grow a few marijuana plants at home. But marijuana still can't be sold over the counter.
"The social paradigm shift has not moved far enough in Vermont to get to regulation and taxation," said Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.
Vermont has no ballot initiative process, so advocates plan to press reluctant lawmakers to authorize retail marijuana sales during next year's legislative session, she said.
The Coast Guard reminded boaters this week that marijuana remained illegal under federal law on Vermont's Lake Champlain and warned that vessels could be boarded if the rules are flouted.
Speed bumps aside, analysts still consider New England a potentially lucrative cannabis market.
Despite the slow rollout of pot shops, Rob Hunt, an industry consultant, projects the Massachusetts market alone could reach $1.8 billion by 2021. Judging by experiences in other states, he said, local resistance should eventually subside.
"It's just a longer period of time for (consumers) to have access to a better, safer product and a greater selection," Hunt said.
Also not discouraged are would-be marijuana retailers like Aaron Tobey, co-owner of Cape Cod's Highest Ground, who hopes to open a store in the tourist-rich area before next summer. He even applauds state regulators on their cautious approach.
"If it takes more time," he said, "it takes more time."
-- Bob Salzberg, The Associated Press
(AP writers Kathleen Foody in Denver and David Jordan in Vermont contributed to this report.)