Medical Marijuana Companies Jockey for Position with Dispensary Licenses on the Way in Massachusetts

By the end of this month, Massachusetts will give out the first ever licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries, up to 35 in all. This follows a ballot measure approved by voters in 2012. Non-profit groups looking to set up a dispensary have gone through a lengthy application process, while cities and towns hurry to regulate them. Some have tried to keep the facilities out, but others have been more welcoming. 

Throughout this process, city planners, regulators, and wanna-be medical pot dispensary owners echo one word repeatedly: Transparency.

But what’s that transparency actually showing? Mountains of paperwork, fees, ordinances, regulations, applications, and negotiations between companies and communities. It’s all going smoothly in some places, while others may be keeping pot dispensaries out, intentionally or not.

First, to Pittsfield, in the far western Berkshires. A group calling themselves Manna Wellness hopes to set up a dispensary outside downtown.

“It’s really important to us that we first address the medical need for patients in this community that have debilitating conditions that really need the medicine,” says Julia Germaine, one of Manna’s three directors. She’s sipping coffee at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield. I met her there along with Nial DeMena, another director.

“One of the reasons why we wanted to go to Pittsfield is because they were very proactive in passing legislation for zoning and permitting processes, which is something that we looked for,” says DeMena.

Manna Wellness went public with its plans nearly a year ago, even testifying to the Massachusetts legislature, and almost no one has vocally opposed the company. In fact, criticism of all proposed dispensaries has been almost non-existent in Pittsfield, says City Planner CJ Hoss.

“Throughout the public process, the several public hearings and other openly advertised public meetings, really no concern was voiced at any of those meetings from citizens,” Hoss says.

Hoss even tells me there’s been more uproar over food trucks than medical marijuana dispensaries. Like many municipalities, Pittsfield is requiring a separate application for the dispensaries. But Hoss says it’s pretty standard fare.

“Most of it is the same criteria that we would require for any development that requires approvals from our planning board or our zoning board of appeals,” says Hoss.

Hoss says once applications are in, the city informs neighbors to the proposed dispensaries. That’s when the lack of opposition could change.

“So theoretically, if there was a feeling that the dispensary would result in a significant adverse impact, then the city could say no,” Hoss says. So even if a group like Manna Wellness gets a state license, there’s no guarantee they’ll get local approval.

Now from the bucolic Berkshires of Pittsfield, into the lower Pioneer Valley, where some struggling areas of Holyoke have attracted attention. 

“It’s an old industrial building that would be retrofitted to have the cultivation, which means growing the product, would have the processing, which is a kitchen area, and then a dispensary on the first floor,” says Brian Lees, describing his proposed facility.

Lees is the former Republican leader of the state senate. We sit in his downtown Springfield office, surrounded by photos of his time in government – including one with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. Lees says he voted against medical marijuana as a senator.

“And as the years went on, and more and more studies were being done, which happens in science, and more detailed studies were being done, it proved to me that this was something that was really beneficial for several folks,” says Lees.

Now Lees is at the head of a proposed Holyoke dispensary. Both Lees and his business partner have roots in Springfield, but chose not to apply there. In fact, just one company listed Springfield on its application, as it’s second choice. Comparatively, 5 applied for Boston, and 9 for Worcester. 

Why so little interest in the largest city in western Massachusetts? It could be Springfield’s temporary moratorium. Last March, Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that cities and towns can’t outright ban pot dispensaries, but they can keep them out for a time. 

“Moratorium is sort of the common language that’s used, but from a technical sense what we did is implement what’s called interim zoning,” says Springfield Solicitor Ed Pikula. “That means we created a definition for medical marijuana treatment centers, and set up a schedule to then create regulations.”

Pikula says those regulations will be in place by June 30th. Springfield also set up a separate application process – very similar to one it used to vet casino proposals. 

“I think any sophisticated developer would see this as a positive way to enter into discussions that everyone can feel comfortable with,” says Pikula.

One problem with those “discussions?” Timing. Springfield’s application was due two weeks after a critical state deadline. Brian Lees says that didn’t match up with his company’s plans, and he questions whether Springfield really knew what it was doing.

“In this case, I think Springfield didn’t really realize exactly what medical marijuana was,” says Lees. “At the same time, they put something in place, they have a right to do that, and they did.”

But Lees’ company had already moved on.

There’s the underlying fact here that marijuana is still illegal federally. But the Justice Department says it won’t intervene in the states that allow medical pot. There are now 20 of them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, fully legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. Brian Lees sees that as a possible future for Massachusetts. But for now, he’s focused on medical use.

“As a businessman, it’s not on our radar right now,” Lees says, “right now is to get a license, get a business up and running that is good for the community, that is good for public health, and then we’ll go from there.”

Regardless of the legalization debate, medical marijuana is coming soon to a town near you.