Massachusetts regulators took several significant steps Friday to liberalize the state’s cannabis rules, voting to expand forthcoming pot delivery operations, permit small nonprofit medical marijuana cultivation operations in private homes, and allow severely ill patients from other states to obtain medical marijuana while undergoing treatment here.
The Cannabis Control Commission approved the changes as dozens of recently licensed marijuana facilities prepare to open in the state’s fast-growing recreational market.
The new regulations also reflected a barrage of criticism from advocates and local entrepreneurs, who argued during a recent public comment period that the Massachusetts marijuana business has been at once over-regulated — leading to high prices and poor availability — and inequitable, with people of color whose communities were hit hardest by the war on drugs struggling to win licenses as envisioned by state law.
“The changes made today [represent] progress for the disenfranchised, particularly people of color, medical cannabis patients, and people with disabilities,” Commissioner Shaleen Title said after the meeting. “Our decisions were in line with the positive data and subsiding stigma that have come after nearly four years of legal, regulated cannabis.”
One key change approved on a unanimous commission vote: Allowing recreational marijuana delivery companies to essentially act as retailers without storefronts, buying wholesale quantities of pot products from growers and processors, storing them in a warehouse, re-packaging them, offering them for sale online, and bringing orders to consumers’ doorsteps.
Previously, commission rules constrained delivery outfits to function as mere couriers (think Uber Eats), picking up full-price orders from brick-and-mortar dispensaries and delivering them to residences for a small fee, with any leftover goods returned to the store. That option will remain available, as some entrepreneurs prefer its lower upfront costs and have already begun the application process.
Advocates also cheered a commission vote to establish an exclusivity period of at least three years during which the agency will issue delivery licenses only to participants in its social equity and economic empowerment programs — meant to benefit those affected by the war on drugs — and so-called microbusinesses, small-scale growers and manufacturers owned by Massachusetts residents. With the addition of the more robust retail-like business model that could offer far larger margins and opportunities for growth, they said Friday’s policy moves represent the best chance yet at achieving equity in the market.
Recreational delivery is expected to commence next year, though only in municipalities that permit recreational stores.
Cannabis officials also approved a major expansion of the state’s “caregiver” program, which allows medical marijuana patients who cannot patronize dispensaries because of their disability or financial hardship to appoint another person to either shop for them or home-grow marijuana and prepare specialized cannabis products tailored to their condition.
Such caregivers will now be able to work with up to five patients instead of only one, as long as they limit their growing area to no more than 500 square feet, pass an electrical inspection, and don’t advertise or make a profit.
Patients said the long-sought change promises to greatly increase access to affordable cannabis medicine.
“For a disabled patient like myself, access to at-cost cannabis through a caregiver is crucial, because the cost of medicine at for-profit medical dispensaries is exorbitant,” Grant Ellis, an advocate and patient, said. “Caregivers also provide medication of a far higher quality than what is grown by corporate dispensaries.”
In another expansion of access, the commission voted 3-1 to allow out-of-state residents receiving end-of-life or cancer treatment in Massachusetts to obtain medical marijuana here, as long as an in-state doctor issues the recommendation. Commissioner Jen Flanagan cast the lone “no” vote, saying she was concerned patients could bring marijuana products across state lines, which is against federal law.
“People come to Massachusetts from all over the world for medical care,” Commissioner Britte McBride said. “They shouldn’t be carrying [marijuana] product[s] into our state and they shouldn’t be carrying product out of state, but while they’re here they should be able to take advantage of this system for this narrow category of people who are in… the most extenuating of circumstances.”
The changes came a day after McBride unexpectedly announced she would resign a year before her four-year term expires, telling MassLive she had decided it was the “right time for me to step back and to assess what my next step is going to be.”
McBride, whose seat is appointed by Attorney General Maura Healey, indicated she would remain on the five-member commission until a replacement is found for former Commissioner Kay Doyle, who departed in May.
Commissioner Title’s term expires this month. However, she is expected to stay on the job while state officials decide whether to reappoint Title or choose a replacement.