It’s April 20, known in marijuana culture as 420, a day to celebrate cannabis consumption. This year, 420 happens as Massachusetts is busy getting ready to launch of the newly legalized recreational marijuana industry.
Here are six things you need to know about the state’s budding cannabis industry.
1. The first Massachusetts recreational dispensaries are expected to open in July.
There’s still a lot of work to do before that happens. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission didn't start accepting applications for licenses until this week. That's just for candidates who have received priority status, giving them a head start on the new industry.
2. More than 800 businesses have shown interest in getting a head start on the industry.
But so far, 55 businesses have gotten it.
Priority certification allows businesses to start the application process now. Other cultivators have to wait until May, and retailers can’t apply until June.
There are two categories of priority status that businesses can apply for. First, registered medical dispensaries (RMDs) get a shot at it. So far, the commission has approved 46 of those.
Nine more candidates have been prioritized as "economic empowerment candidates." The Commission expects to approve more.
“I think it’s a nice, healthy number,” said Cannabis Control Commission Chair Steven Hoffman about the applications. “We’re very pleased at the amount of interest, not just from the RMDs. We expected mostly RMDs to apply. But from the economic empowerment candidates, we’re very pleased that it’s a large number.”
3. This is the one time it’s an advantage to list a prior drug bust on an application.
To get the economic empowerment candidate designation, businesses must meet criteria like minority ownership, being from areas disproportionately impacted by drug law enforcement, or having previous drug convictions. The idea behind this was written into the ballot question that voters supported, and was intended to make up for some of the racial and economic inequities stemming from the war on drugs.
For Kinaja Rose, who qualified this week as an economic empowerment candidate, the designation is a big deal. Her company, I & I Rose Garden Co., met all the criteria, except for a prior drug conviction. Rose says she’s Rastafarian, so marijuana is part of her religion. And as a business, she hosts “ganja yoga classes.”
“My entire life I’ve been in a situation where people don’t understand me, they don’t understand my culture, and there’s a huge stigma around it,” Rose said. “Not just that they don’t understand it, they don’t approve of it, they don’t respect it. They feel like we’re ‘less than’ because we use this, really, medicinal plant. And it’s really beautiful to be able to share my culture in a way that shows them that this is nothing scary, we’re not doing anything wrong here.”
Right now, with the state’s law allowing home growing, Rose can grow 12 plants — just enough to supply her classes. She's applying for licenses for product manufacturing and cultivating, which will allow her to grow and sell a lot more.
4. Medical dispensaries are likely to be the first to be able to sell to recreational customers.
The state currently has 22 open medical dispensaries that are also growing their own marijuana, so they're probably best positioned to open a more lucrative recreational side.
If they do open a recreational business, state regulations require those dispensaries to keep 35 percent of their inventory available for medical patients.
Jeff Herold, COO of Garden Remedies in Newton, which has been open since November 2016, says that works for them.
“You know, we’ve always been focused on patients first,” Herold said. “We’re founded by a physician and that’s the direction we’ve always gone down. We see the adult use market as just another means for medical patients to get access to their medicine. A lot of people don’t want to be on a government list that says that they use cannabis. And they’ll use the adult use market to do so.”
5. Most of the businesses getting RMD priority status haven’t actually opened a medical dispensary.
Fewer than a quarter of the businesses that have “RMD Priority Certification” have sold medical marijuana. The way the Commission is reading the state statute, you don't need to have opened your doors, you just need to be approved to open one.
Nichole Snow of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance is concerned that businesses licensed to open medical dispensaries could drop those plans once they get a jump on the more lucrative recreational market.
“We just want to make sure that the Commission understands that these communities and cities and towns that were waiting for medical marijuana treatment, they may or may not get it,” Snow said. She wants the state’s Cannabis Commission to make businesses commit to opening their medical dispensaries in order to get a retail license.
But commission chair Steven Hoffman wouldn’t endorse that. “We’re going to make an individual decision on each license application that we’re going to get, and I’m not going to get ahead of ourselves and say what applications we’re going to approve or not approve,” Hoffman said this week.
6. President Trump appears to have shifted the federal government’s stance on enforcing pot laws
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said U.S. attorneys could decide how aggressively to go after marijuana, even in states that have legalized.
But last week, President Trump said he now plans to support legislation to protect the marijuana industry in states that have legalized. How this will all play out remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Happy 420!