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Cannabis Legalization in Massachusetts: An Interview with Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission

By Aaron G. Biros
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On February 13 at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, will deliver a keynote discussion. Hoffman will sit down with National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith to discuss the first few months of recreational legalization, challenges and the path forward for the state. We caught up with Hoffman to hear about some of the biggest obstacles and successes when it came to standing up a regulated adult-use cannabis market.

On November 8, 2016, voters in Massachusetts ushered in a new era for the East Coast, when they passed a ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis. Almost immediately after that, the Massachusetts Legislature put a hold on implementation in order to study the issues and revise the legislation, which was ultimately signed in July of 2017. That September, Steven Hoffman and his colleagues at the Cannabis Control Commission were appointed to figure out how the state should regulate the market, enforce its regulations and roll out the new adult-use program.

Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission

The Commission was tasked with creating something brand new, without a roadmap in place and developing rules around some very contentious issues. “I think the biggest obstacle was that we were doing something unprecedented,” says Hoffman. “Every state is different demographically and the laws differ state to state, and we got a lot of help from other states sharing their experiences with us, but we were still going down an uncharted path for Massachusetts.”

Hoffman told us the very first thing they needed to do in 2017 was conduct listening sessions in which the commissioners listened to citizens for recommendations and heard people’s thoughts on cannabis legalization. “We did that immediately. We needed to conduct a process that was transparent, thoughtful and inclusive,” says Hoffman. “We then, in public, debated policies around adult-use marijuana regarding licensing processes, criteria and enforcement.”

They debated policies in a public forum for four days and came back the following week to embed their decisions in draft regulations that were submitted to the Secretary of State in December 2017. Then, they had 10 more public hearings, made some modifications to the rules, and promulgated a final version of the adult-use regulations in March 2018, keeping everything as transparent and inclusive as possible. “I don’t think anyone has been critical of that process behind it,” says Hoffman.

Certain pieces of the regulations stand out as particularly inclusive and progressive for Massachusetts’ cannabis program. For example, certain mandates encourage diversity and support communities affected by the drug war. Hoffman says the Commission couldn’t take credit for those completely because their objectives are explicit in the legislation, however, the agency still made sure the state followed through. “The mandate said the industry should look like the state of Massachusetts in terms of our diversity,” says Hoffman. That includes creating a diverse industry with respect to ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, veteran and disabled participation. Additionally, he added, “it was a very explicit set of requirements that those communities who were disproportionally harmed by the drug war are full participants in the new industry we set up. Those were both legislative mandates, so we take them very seriously and I wouldn’t have taken this appointment if I didn’t think it was absolutely essential.”

You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. On November 20, 2018, the first adult-use dispensaries in the state opened their doors for business and began selling cannabis. Hoffman says he is most proud of their rollout of the program as well as the transparency and inclusiveness through which they conducted the process. “I think this is a very controversial issue; the voters approved this issue by 53-47%,” says Hoffman. “No matter what we do, we won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve done everything possible to allow people to participate and feel like they’ve been listened to. We made our decisions publicly and transparently.”

Beyond that, the Commission wanted to take their time to make sure things were done the right way the first time. “From day one, we decided we were going to do this right rather than meet an arbitrary timeline,” says Hoffman. “It’s gradual, it’s maybe slower than some people would like, but our rollout has been well-received and relatively smooth. I think a gradual and thoughtful process, not focused on a deadline, went very well. Hopefully we have given other states a model when they plan their own rollout.”

Hoffman wouldn’t comment on whether or not he would encourage other states down a similar path, but he did say they could probably learn a thing or two from them. “I expect other states will do what we did,” says Hoffman. “They will talk to other states ahead of them like us and hopefully will benefit from learning from our experiences. I don’t know what the laws will look like but I expect other states need to make it work for them specifically.”

You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. Make sure to check out his keynote discussion with Aaron Smith on Wednesday, February 13 at 10:30am.

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Massachusetts Opens Recreational Market

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, on November 20, dispensaries in Massachusetts began selling cannabis to recreational consumers. The market was off to an obviously electric start, following the path of other states that legalized recreational cannabis. Consumers waited in long lines on opening day, more than two years after voters in the state legalized cannabis.

While this marks an important milestone as the first legal recreational cannabis sales began on the East Coast, regulators only approved two licensed dispensaries to begin operations on opening day. Those two retailers allowed to begin sales are Cultivate Holdings in Leicester and New England Treatment Access in Northampton.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), the state’s regulatory body overseeing the new marketplace, received some criticism for taking more than a year to establish and implement regulations for the industry. In April of this year, regulators were just preparing the final rules.

It has taken them a fair amount of time to establish the regulatory framework, but much of the recent delays were due to a lack of laboratory licenses. Earlier in November, the CCC finally approved two laboratories for testing in the recreational market. Those two labs are MCR Labs LLC of Framingham and CDX Analytics LLC of Salem. With the labs approved for third-party independent testing in the recreational market, regulators began allowing retailers to open shortly after.

Shawn Collins, executive director for the CCC, told Boston 25 News that they are delivering on the voters’ requests to provide for a safe marketplace. “When Massachusetts voters legalized adult-use cannabis, they communicated a desire to purchase products that are safely regulated and properly tested,” says Collins. “The Commission has done scrupulous due diligence to make that vision a reality and ensure licensed independent testing labs maximize public health and public safety.”

Massachusetts Prepares for Adult-Use

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last month, the Cannabis Control Commission, the regulatory body overseeing Massachusetts’ newest industry, finalized their regulations for the market. At the beginning of this month, the state began accepting applications for business licenses. Now with the full implementation of adult-use sales on the horizon, businesses, regulators, consumers and local governments are preparing themselves for the legalization of adult-use cannabis. Sales are expected to begin June 1st.

On March 29th, the Cannabis Control Commission announced their finalized rules were filed, published and took effect. Leading up to the filing, the Commission reports they held 10 listening sessions, received roughly 500 public comments and conducted 7 hearings for roughly 150 policy decisions. The license categories that businesses can apply for include cultivator, craft marijuana cooperative, microbusiness, product manufacturer, independent testing laboratory, storefront retailer, third-party transporter, existing licensee transporter, and research facility, according to the press release.

What separates Massachusetts’ rules from other states’ rules are a few of the license categories as well as environmental regulations, as Kris Kane highlights in this Forbes article. Experimental policies, like the microbusiness and craft marijuana co-op licenses, Kane says, are some tactics the Commission hopes may help those affected by the drug war and those who don’t have the capital and funding required for the larger license types.This is a groundbreaking reform previously unseen in states that have legalized cannabis. 

The Commission will also establish a Social Equity Program, as outlined in the final rules (section 17 of 500.105). That program is designed to help those who have been arrested of a cannabis-related crime previously or lived in a neighborhood adversely affected by the drug war. “The committee makes specific recommendations as to the use of community reinvestment funds in the areas of programming, restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development, industry-specific technical assistance, and mentoring services, in areas of disproportionate impact,” reads one excerpt from the rules (section 500.002) identifying the need for a Citizen Review Committee, which advises on the implementation of that Social Equity Program.

This is a groundbreaking reform previously unseen in states that have legalized cannabis. Massachusetts may very well be the first state to actively help victims of the prohibition of cannabis.Some municipalities are hesitant and skeptical, while others are fully embracing the new industry with open arms.

For environmental rules, Kane notes the Commission is taking unprecedented steps to address energy usage in the cultivation process, pushing the industry to think about environmental sustainability in their bottom line and as part of their routine regulatory compliance. He says the Commission mandates a 36 watts-per-square-foot maximum for indoor cannabis cultivators.

On Monday, April 2nd the state began accepting applications for businesses seeking licensure. Within a few days, nearly 200 businesses have applied. That number is expected to grow significantly over the next few weeks.

While businesses continue applying for licenses, local governments are preparing in their own way. Some municipalities are hesitant and skeptical, while others are fully embracing the new industry with open arms.

A couple weeks ago, the City Council of Springfield, Massachusetts passed a six-month moratorium on cannabis sales, citing the need for more time to draft local regulations for businesses first. “I believe the moratorium is in place to make sure that we get it right the first time,” Councilor Adam Gomez, chairman of the council’s Economic Development Committee told MassLive. “We don’t have a chance to get it right the second time. The residents of Springfield supported this.” There are also talks of a potential temporary ban in Truro, MA.

Meanwhile in the city of Attleboro, ABC6 News reports Mayor Paul Heroux is “working to make his city marijuana friendly as city councilors work to draft regulation ordinances.” In Peabody, two businesses just received approval to begin operating as medical dispensaries.

Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council Launches Education Program

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) is an interesting nonprofit that recently launched an educational campaign, called Consume Responsibly Massachusetts. For many cannabis advocates who watched their states legalize the drug, consumer education is a very important part of moving forward. As states across the East Coast implement regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the rules are right the first time, and that cannabis businesses become responsible stewards of their new market.

In the wake of pesticide recalls in the west and related public health concerns, the issues surrounding consumer safety and how states protect that are now front and center. “The purpose of Consume Responsibly Massachusetts is to keep adult-consumers informed of their rights in the state,” says Jefferson. “It’s also an ongoing effort to bring consumers into the world of cannabis politics and science.”

The MRCC’s mission is to help protect the safety of recreational cannabis consumers by bridging the information gap between businesses, legislators and communities. “We work at the state and local level advocating for sensible recreational marijuana policy and regulations,” reads a press release. According to Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC, bridging that gap requires a lot of community engagement. “I was a field organizer on the Campaign to Tax and Regulate Marijuana here in Massachusetts so this is extremely important to me,” says Jefferson. “MRCC participated in this year’s Cambridge 5K Freedom Run.” He says getting out in the community like this is one of many ways to help provide educational opportunities, help promote local cannabis businesses and get rid of the “lazy stoner stigma.”

Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC

For the MRCC, the issue of craft cannabis is a significant part of the organization’s philosophy, in addition to product safety and others. “Craft Cannabis will benefit the consumer in an entirely new way,” says Jefferson. “Members of the community will have a chance to provide products and directly affect the economy.” Because local owners tend to be more involved in their towns, Jefferson says residents will get to make more of an impact than nonlocal owners. And he’s right- small, local businesses contribute substantially more to local economies and communities than large companies. Between 1993 and 2013, small businesses created roughly 63% of all new jobs in the United States. With the new cannabis market comes a promising opportunity for local economies.

“The Massachusetts cannabis industry is developing and growing fast,” says Jefferson. “Aside from the medical marijuana production sites, the new recreational marijuana law grants production participation in the regulated recreational marijuana industry to farmers, in the form of craft marijuana cultivator cooperative systems.” While he thinks this is a good opportunity for small businesses and communities alike to gain a foothold in the market, Jefferson is hesitant to endorse Massachusetts’ regulatory policies. “A lack of regulatory oversight from the CCC [Cannabis Control Commission] places the cannabis industry in a vulnerable position,” says Jefferson. “If we want clear, consistent standards for clean and safe products prioritized, then we need consistent testing data.” Jefferson is arguing for more regulatory oversight for safety issues, such as contaminant testing. This is one of a handful of issues they are pressing for sensible cannabis policy in Massachusetts.

Here are some of the issues they support:

  • Local Cannabis: Equitable licensing for small and medium sized local businesses from members of the community.
  • Quality Control: Access to a variety of clean and safe cannabis products in retail dispensaries, tested for harmful contaminants, mold, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Responsible + Safe Consumption: Access to educational materials about proper dosage, methods of ingestion, quality analysis, understanding product labels and general cannabis information.
  • High Potency Flowers, Edibles, & Concentrates: Access, non-restriction to high potency marijuana products of all forms.
  • Home Grow: Ability to grow at least 6 plants per person, 12 per household as stated in Question 4.
  • Social Use: The ability to consume in designated establishments outside of the household.
  • Expungement: Sentence commutation and record expungement for convictions involving non-violent marijuana charges that are now legal.
  • Research: University supported biological, behavioral and cognitive marijuana research to further our understanding and capabilities of the cannabis plant.