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With Recreational Regulations Unclear, Massachusetts’ Medical Marijuana Industry Flounders

Municipal officials worry that allowing medical dispensaries to set up shop will eventually end up sticking towns with unwanted recreational dispensaries.

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The regulatory woes are hitting Massachusetts. Lawmakers in the Bay State have been trying to amend the voter approved recreational cannabis legalization law since it passed in November, and the lack of clarity is now taking a toll on the state’s existing medical marijuana community.

According to the Boston Globe, municipalities across Massachusetts are slow to approve medical marijuana permits thanks to the uncertainty surrounding the state’s recreational law. As the law currently stands, once recreational sales are approved, medical dispensaries will be able to sell to the age-approved general public without any additional permits or licenses.

Mass. lawmakers have already delayed the start of retail cannabis sales once, and for Jim Fitzgerald, a local lawmaker in Marshfield, Mass, and longtime proponent of medical marijuana, the lack of certainty about the coming recreational industry is enough to suspend his town’s participation in the medical side of the industry, too.

“There’s a big difference between medical marijuana facilities and recreational facilities,” Fitzgerald told the Globe. “Until the state gets its act together, any discussion of a dispensary is just a waste of time and air.”

Currently, there are only 10 medical marijuana dispensaries open for business in the state, but 80 more that have passed initial licensing and locked down locations. And while it would make sense under the current legislative structure to get those businesses open as soon as possible to take advantage of the impending recreational regulations, investors are getting cold feet thanks to the bickering legislators. 

“We don’t know what the regulations are, so we can’t do anything,” Jeremy Bromberg, COO of MassMedicum, which has preliminary licenses for medical dispensaries in Amherst, Holbrook, and Taunton told the Globe, which “…at one point caused some would-be investors to pull back altogether.”

MassMedicum has halted construction on all three dispensaries as they wait for investors and regulations to catch up. Under Massachusetts’ medical marijuana laws, perspective businesses only have one year to set up shop after obtaining licenses. Dispensaries given initial approval before December 15, 2016 have an even more pressing timeline, as those medical facilities are allowed to apply for recreational licenses a year earlier than everyone else. 

For the state’s medical marijuana community, the recreational legislation has been nothing but a hindrance. Robert Proctor has been trying to open a medical dispensary, but hasn’t been able to make a deal with any local municipalities thanks to the recreational law. 

“The progress we were making was great — until the recreational vote,” Proctor told the Globe. “All the towns where we were deep into negotiations said, ‘We’re going to wait until we see what happens with recreational.’ . . . We came to talk about medical, but all they hear, see, and think is ‘pot shop.’”

Some municipalities are even asking medical dispensaries to pledge that they won’t go recreational once regulations are set. 

Massachusetts is set to be the East Coast’s first legal weed market, with millions in tax dollars and tourism set to follow. But if lawmakers continue to waver on the industry’s guidelines, they risk alienating both the medical and recreational industry - and just maybe, losing the East Coast green rush to a state like Rhode Island or Maine.