Cover Story » Vol 63

Worcester’s Green Rush

Jason Savio

It could be a green summer in Worcester this year. After much deliberation and planning, the legalization of selling recreational marijuana in Massachusetts is right around the corner. But what will this look like in Worcester? While nothing yet is set in stone, the picture is becoming clearer as we approach the finish line.

Where we are now

Worcester voters said yes to Question 4 in 2016 — the state legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana — by a close 55/45 margin, opening up WooTown to become commercially friendly to recreational weed for those 21 years and older. But since then, there has been much debate across the state on how to implement the new law, causing a halt on it going forward.

To sort through the confusion, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission has been tasked with developing regulations for the use of recreational and medicinal marijuana. Under the new law, marijuana retailers are allowed to sell recreational marijuana products to consumers and licensed marijuana cultivators are allowed to produce and sell marijuana products to the aforementioned establishments.

The commission released a draft of regulations in December, outlining different recreational license categories, rules and restrictions. Among the retailer options discussed by the Cannabis Control Commission are two types of on-site social consumption licenses. The first is a primary-use license for places like a cannabis cafés, where more than 50 percent of their business is from marijuana sales. The second is a mixed-use license, where marijuana is not the primary source of income — think a massage parlor where cannabis oils would be offered or a restaurant that uses marijuana as an ingredient in some of its dishes.

The regulations were recently finalized and there are four big takaways:

There will be no cannabis shops or home delivery for now. The commission decided to start slow and put these types of businesses on hold for now. Originally facing a deadline of March 15 to draft the regulations, the commission pushed the deadline to Oct. 31 for regulations for on-site consumption businesses.

Marijuana dispensaries must set aside product for patients. Dispensaries will be able to sell product to adults, but they must also set aside 35 percent of their product for registered patients.

Cultivators will be capped. There will be a 100,000-square-foot cap for cultivators. This is to discourage diversion of product onto the black market in other states.

People convicted of drug trafficking will not work with cannabis. Convicted drug traffickers will be able to get a license to work for a marijuana business, but will have no contact with cannabis.

The powers that be in the city of Worcester have already started shaping their own approach to how they intend to add recreational weed to Worcester’s neighborhoods.

Worcester’s Way

When the Cannabis Control Commission’s draft regulations were released, officials in Worcester began their own outline for how they plan to implement the state’s decisions at a municipal level.

In a letter by City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr., issued to the city council, the city manager outlined his proposal of recommendations for how the new state laws will fit in Worcester.

One of the choices that stands out the most is that there can be, at most, 15 recreational marijuana businesses given the green light, setting the limit allowed to be no more than 20 percent of the off-premises liquor licenses. Thus, creating a cap at 15 based on the 74 off-premises alcohol licenses already here.

“The first point where we as a city can say ‘no more’ is at 15,” said Jake Sanders, coordinator of intergovernmental affairs and municipal initiatives at the city manager’s office. “It would be against the legislation for us to have two and then say we’re not having anymore. We don’t have any right to say that.”

The 15 licenses handed out could possibly be a mix of different types of recreational marijuana businesses if the Cannabis Control Commission ends up approving recreational cafes in the future.

“Based on our interpretation (of the draft regulations) that all fits under that 15 number,” said Sanders of the various licenses.

If you want to get green, though, you’re going to have to pay up. Under the new state law, the maximum tax rate on the retail sale of cannabis is 20 percent. Making up that 20 percent is an existing 6.25 percent state sales tax and a state excise tax of 10.75 percent, leaving an optional 3 percent municipal tax provision left over. And, yes, Worcester has decided to accept that offer and include it in your fee.
And if you want to open your own pot place, you’re going to have to dig deep in your pockets, too. The new state regulations force both recreational and medicinal marijuana establishments to fulfill a “host community agreement” that can include a “community impact fee” if the town decides to pursue it. The fee can be no more than 3 percent of the gross sales of the business. Worcester will be looking to collect on this as well, according to the city manager’s letter.

There is obvious concern about the future addition of recreational pot shops, one of which is its impact on neighborhoods and children. The Cannabis Control Commission is leaving it up to the towns to decide on acceptable places for these marijuana businesses to open shop, and the city manager has recommended zoning restrictions to keep them from being within 300 feet of schools, the same rule that already applies to medicinal marijuana facilities.

Recreational vs. medicinal marijuana

If recreational marijuana entities roll into Worcester in the future, where does that leave the medicinal shops or shops that sell product to grow your own? There are four companies that have provisional licenses to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Worcester, but none have opened yet. Medicinal facilities should remain unworried, since the majority of patients who seek them out are in search of something different than casual recreational users, according to Peter DeCaro, CEO of the yet-to-be-opened Medicinal Alternatives, Inc.

Whereas recreational smokers are looking to get high, medicinal users are not. They therefore have no need for the high-delivering compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Instead, medicinal smokers want CBD (cannabidiol), a compound in the marijuana plant proven to deliver relief to various ailments without the side effects of getting stoned. Medical marijuana facilities are able to cater to these people by supplying strains that have little-to-no trace of THC and instead emphasize CBD.

Ken Helinski is operations manager at Green Zone Hydroponics and Supplies, a one-stop shop for gardening supplies needed to grow cannabis. Helinski said that right now business is good and he isn’t concerned about what the inclusion of recreational shops might bring.

“There will always be people who will want to grow the product on their own because it will be only a fraction of the cost that a dispensary will charge,” he said. “The dispensary will probably be $300-$350 an ounce, whereas, you can grow that at your house for only $40 an ounce.”

As for the medicinal side of things, Helinksi, who says he has been benefiting from cannabis for medical purposes for more than 30 years, thinks those businesses will also be fine.

“The plant is an amazing beneficial plant in many, many areas,” said Helinski. “I know people who have gotten rid of most of their prescription drugs, if not all of them, just by using cannabis on a daily basis. It’s not just smoking to get high. It’s using the product in an edible form — or even the CBD part of the plant that benefits the body — and there is zero high associated with it, and a lot of the time, people don’t understand that.”

Clinical and scientific research suggests that CBD can help treat conditions such as diabetes, PTSD, arthritis and depression. CBD is also being studied for its potential as an anti-cancer drug, according to a 2013 article published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
DeCaro is a cancer survivor who champions the positives he believes come from medicinal marijuana.

“Having used the product for my own ailments, I certainly recognize the benefits of it, and that’s part of where my passion comes from to help apply these benefits to other patients seeking alternative forms of relief, particularly from opiates,” said DeCaro.

But from a business standpoint, there is a tinge of concern DeCaro feels with welcoming recreational businesses.

“Am I concerned that some stores will hurt the market and prolong the stigma associated with marijuana?” he asked. “I guess I’m concerned, but I trust those of us that are in the industry — that we’re all seeking to do the right thing in delivering the highest level of product and service delivery. And I see the two markets being different.”

Helinski, for his part, thinks it will be good for Worcester.

“Just having a safe product that people can go and purchase, and you don’t have to go to the black market — it’s tested, so you know that the product is safe — I think that’s very important and just everything else that comes along with the legal industry,” he said. “There are huge benefits throughout the whole system.”

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