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Cannabis Control Commission scraps social consumption pilot program, adopts new approach

Katie Lannan

The state’s Cannabis Control Commission on Monday took a step its members said would help streamline the process for getting cannabis cafes and marijuana lounges up and running in Massachusetts.

The commission voted to scrap a pilot program that would initially limit social consumption establishments — places where people can buy marijuana products and use them onsite — to 12 communities.

Commissioner Bruce Stebbins said the pilot program would involve a “burdensome and expensive” process, and that by eliminating it, the commission could instead focus on developing a broader licensing framework for all social consumption sites.

“Our suggestion is, if you want us to go and work on the pilot program, that’s step one and that will take an extended period of time,” Stebbins said. “We’re saying, right now, to help direct our work, we don’t feel that the pilot program is needed as it’s written.”

Stebbins and Commissioner Nurys Camargo lead a Cannabis Control Commission working group exploring issues around social consumption.

Camargo said that instead of a pilot program, there are many other steps the commission can take to ease opening cafes and lounges, including working with cities and towns interested in hosting one of the new businesses.

“That’s going to allow our licensees to start thinking, ‘Hey, I do want to go to this town, I don’t want to go to this town,’” she said.

Four commission members voted to do away with the pilot. The fifth commissioner, Kimberly Roy, voted present, saying she wanted to know more about public health, public safety and equity impacts.

The 2016 ballot question that legalized adult marijuana use in Massachusetts envisioned social consumption sites, but more than six years later, those locations are not yet a reality.

The commission wrote the pilot program into its regulations in 2019.

Since then, the panel’s membership has shifted to a new slate of commissioners, the Massachusetts marijuana industry has continued to grow, and state lawmakers passed a package of cannabis reforms, including, among other measures, a process for cities and towns to opt in to allowing social consumption sites.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the Equitable Opportunities Now coalition sent a letter to the commission, asking its members to “set aside the social consumption pilot program in the interest of avoiding overly burdensome regulations, removing artificial and unnecessary barriers, respecting local control, advancing the commission’s licensing prerogative, and providing clarity to potential entrepreneurs from disparately harmed communities and their potential host communities.”

The letter said the pilot would create uncertainty for potential operators of social use sites, “artificially” limit the number of communities that could host the establishments and empower the commission “to pick winners and losers.”

“We look forward to working together to ensure that this exciting new license type creates meaningful opportunities for communities most harmed by the war on drugs,” Armani White, the coalition’s public policy co-chair, said in a statement after the vote.

With the pilot program now off the table, Camargo said commissioners are inviting public outreach on social consumption before it dives into the formal regulatory process. She said they’ll talk to officials from other states where marijuana is legal and host listening sessions, including a virtual one coming up in June.

Katie Lannan covers the State House for GBH News.