Cooperative ownership of marijuana stores emerged Monday night as a possible new approach to involving more local entrepreneurs of modest means in the emerging industry. The idea drew immediate support from the chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
Barry O. Lawton, a longtime member of the Meeting House Hill Civic Association in Dorchester, suggested the state authorize the creation of co-op retail stores. He spoke during a meeting of 50 neighborhood leaders at the Strand Theatre. The little-publicized gathering was called so that Dorchester civic groups seeing a rise in cannabis store applications could engage with the responsible state and city officials.
"Could there possibly be consideration for a co-op, wherein people in the city could pool and become one large piece of the market?" Lawton asked, directing his question to Cannabis Control Commission Chair Steven J. Hoffman and Alexis M. Tkachuck, a senior advisor in city's Office of Emerging Industries.
Hoffman endorsed the idea, which also received vocal support from several civic association leaders present.
"I actually think your idea is a great one," Hoffman said, responding to Lawton. "I think it makes a lot of sense, and I commit, right now in public, that I will work that issue."
Hoffman pointed to the state law that already allows small cultivators to band together in craft marijuana cooperatives, sharing resources and costs. The law only permits them to cultivate, process, package, brand and deliver marijuana to establishments. Currently, coops are not allowed to own and operate them.
Hoffman said even though craft cultivators are the sole establishment type that's allowed to form cooperatives, extending that model to entrepreneurs is "an interesting idea to investigate."
"It seems to work in the context of small farmers, so why not explore whether it can work for small, inner-city business people," he explained, cautioning that additional legislation may be needed to enable such a program.
Commissioner Shaleen Title, who did not attend the meeting, agreed the concept has potential.
“I think the idea is worth exploring. especially considering that lack of capital is such a barrier,” Title told WGBH News in a phone interview Tuesday. Title holds the social justice seat on the Cannabis Control Commission and said for now, the agency is focused on collecting data from craft cultivators “to see what their challenges are so we can address them,” before rolling out more cooperative options.
Other states have tried similar cooperative structures. Both California and Colorado have allowed the formation of marijuana cooperatives. California recently began bringing them under more strict regulation, while Colorado reversed course and banned them outright.
Another issue raised at the meeting: Potentially expanding the definition of a “buffer zone” around a marijuana establishment.
Right now, the commission's regulations prohibit recreational marijuana establishments within 500 feet of an existing K-12 school unless a municipality allows otherwise. Some Dorchester civic leaders said they preferred a definition that also bars establishments near "where children commonly congregate," such as Boys and Girls Clubs, playgrounds and recreation centers. The phrase comes from the buffer zone definition outlined by the state health department, which regulated medical marijuana in the state until last month.
Hoffman said that when the commission assumed oversight of medical marijuana, members were careful not to make changes to the existing regulations and potentially disrupt operations.
“That was, by far, our most important criteria — to make sure nothing happened,” he said.
Hoffman said the agency has since announced that it will begin to review and consolidate recreational and medical use regulations.
“We will have public listening sessions across the state in late February or early March,” he said, adding that it is a challenging task to define where children congregate without ruling the entire city out of bounds
“It’s a balancing act,” said Hoffman. “Pretty much everything we’ve done on the commission, I would say, is a balancing act between the will of the voters and accessibility versus concerns about public health and public safety.”