As Massachusetts communities consider whether to allow recreational marijuana dispensaries inside their borders, one thing is clear – those that say “no” could be leaving significant money on the table.
For supporters of the Question 4 ballot initiative that voters solidly supported in 2016, local prohibitions seem to make no sense. They also run counter to the will of that majority of voters, which favored recreational marijuana by nearly 54 percent.
In some communities, local government bodies have passed moratoriums on non-medical dispensaries or outright bans. In June, Southbridge voters said no to marijuana production, cultivation, manufacturing and retail. That was during a 19 percent turnout for a local election. In the 2016 state election, with a much higher turnout, 56 percent of Southbridge voters voted yes on Question 4.
It is that very contradiction that puzzles supporters of the law, who note that marijuana users who live in every Massachusetts community will effectively be contributing to the economies of the nearest towns that approve dispensaries.
That was a point that Worcester officials had in mind when they approved four medical marijuana sites. The sites could all transform into recreational marijuana facilities down the road, according to Jacob Sanders, coordinator of the city’s intergovernmental affairs and municipal initiatives.
“The (statewide) Cannabis Control Commission will be in place by Sept. 1 and then the regulations will come out and we’ll see what sort of local control we will have. We’ll have a general sense of what we can do,” Sanders said.
In a city as large as Worcester, absent any competition from neighboring towns — such as commercial hubs like Auburn and Shrewsbury, both of which have seen efforts to limit marijuana business — recreational facilities stand to be lucrative.
The maximum tax established by the bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed July 28 is 20 percent, including a 3 percent “local option” tax that individual municipalities could implement — and benefit from — on top of the 6.25 state sales tax and 10.75 excise tax.
“What I would say to these communities that say no is that, depending on the size of the community, there are many users that live in your community,” said Will Luzier, the Yes on 4 political director. “They could purchase it here in your town and you could reap the benefits financial and otherwise. Not just tax revenue, but studies show communities are safer with these facilities because of [the] high level of security. There are real estate tax benefits, jobs created.”
“These shops bring all kinds of commerce and jobs and ancillary businesses with them,” Bernard said.
Sanders agrees. “There is absolutely a business aspect to this that is considerable,” he said. “Some people for sure will turn a nice profit.”
Northampton lawyer Dick Evans said local officials should be made to answer for their decision to block licensing “… in the absence of any evidence whatsoever that cultivation farms, or processing factories, or retail shops threaten the public health and safety.”
In a town election in May, Auburn voters rejected all facets of the marijuana law (excepting medical marijuana) by a vote of 672-386.
The town’s electorate narrowly voted in favor of Question 4, and Auburn is moving ahead with a proposal for a medical marijuana facility. Town Manager Julie Jacobson, a former Worcester assistant city manager, acknowledges the contradiction, while noting that the town voted for Question 4 with a 50.6 percent majority. By contrast, Auburn supported legalization of medical marijuana in the 2012 statewide referendum, with more than 60 percent of residents voting yes.
Jacobson also said that, while the town might make an attractive site for recreational marijuana based on its location – at the crossroads of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 290 — it already has a healthy commercial base.
“Perhaps some other type of community might look at it for community revenue,” she said.
The earliest any recreational site can open is July 2018.
Steven and Jessica Mandile, who live in Uxbridge and supported the Yes on Question 4 campaign, are working with nearby Bellingham to open a medical marijuana facility.
Steven Mandile is an Iraq War veteran with a spinal injury who has found that marijuana works better than any of the prescription drugs he has used.
Jessica Mandile expects the facility to take in $300,000 a year. She said she accepts the political eality that towns are not climbing all over each other to open recreational marijuana shops.
“It really just blows my mind,” she said. “People can do the research (on marijuana) themselves, but want to remain ignorant to it and be OK with going to a bar to have four or five drinks [and] that’s socially acceptable. Marijuana is not socially acceptable.
“The towns that say no are absolutely giving up something really great. There’s no doubt about it. They don’t realize it’s much safer. On the street, people can put anything they want in it. This would be a tested, safe product.”
Peter C. Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, who also suffers from a spinal injury, predicts that depressed communities are going to see marijuana shops as a good way to reinvigorate. “It’s going to bring tourism,” he said. “There are pot smokers in every walk of life. You would never know [by appearances] in a million years that I smoke weed.”
While legalized shops may charge $400 an ounce, Bernard said people are willing to pay more for a product they can trust. The black market, which will sell for roughly half as much, he said, will flourish where people have to travel long distances to find a dispensary.
“I think the smaller towns, if they’re looking to generate cannabis revenue, should try to foster a good environment for their farmers and unused commercial spaces to conduct small, craft-style grows. They produce top-shelf quality that is highly sought after. Geography is not the only factor. The smaller towns shouldn’t count themselves out,” he said.
Evans said he is more interested in the municipal “yea-sayers” than the “naysayers.”
“Some officials in some municipalities welcome this new and very green industry,” he said. “Holyoke and Easthampton come immediately to mind.”
The town of Easthampton is looking at possibly becoming a recreational marijuana destination with “cannabis cafes.”
In adjacent Holyoke, the mayor vetoed a City Council moratorium on recreational marijuana.
The marijuana laws lay out a series of hoops that state and local officials must jump through before a particular site can open.
Worcester has gone through a rigorous vetting process that included neighborhood meetings with prospective companies, Sanders said.
“We have the full expectation they will be opening toward the end of the year,” to sell medical marijuana he said. “We’re very much aware of their status and how the recreational law will impact them and the city, and we’re trying to do it in the best interests of the residents of the city.”