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Home delivery of marijuana could start in Massachusetts this year

(Globe Staff/File)

Home delivery of recreational marijuana could debut in Massachusetts later this year, after regulators reached agreement on a program that would increase consumer access to cannabis while also giving a leg up to entrepreneurs affected by the war on drugs.

The state Cannabis Control Commission voted 4-1 at a meeting Friday in favor of a package of policies that, if implemented, would allow delivery to residential properties across the state — except in the dozens of municipalities that have banned retail pot sales.

A final vote on detailed delivery regulations is expected in mid-May; only Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan objected to delivery in concept, citing public safety concerns.

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“Delivery is an important thing to do,” commission chairman Steve Hoffman said following the meeting. “I believe we’re ready. This is going to make it more accessible for consumers... and it’s a very important thing from a social equity standpoint, because of the lower barriers to entry in terms of the capital requirements.”

Under the proposed model, developed by Commissioner Britte McBride, marijuana flower, edibles, and other pot products ordered by consumers would come from brick-and-mortar marijuana stores, not cultivators or processors, with any undelivered products being returned to the shop at the end of the day.

That’s a big relief for retailers, who feared being cut out of what will likely be a lucrative delivery market.

However, the businesses picking up the products and bringing them to consumers would be independent entities, each of which could contract with multiple stores. To get a license, those companies and their employees would have to clear rigorous background checks and vehicle inspections, plus meet a laundry list of security and inventory-tracking requirements.

The commission also signaled Friday that it sees the delivery market as a way to help meet its statutory mandate of creating a diverse marijuana industry: For at least two years, delivery licenses under the proposal would only go to participants in the commission’s economic empowerment and social equity programs.

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The empowerment program grants faster licensure to companies that are either led by, employ, or benefit members of communities that had high rates of drug arrests; the equity program will provide technical training to those who were arrested for drug crimes or are a close relative of someone who was, or who come from a community with a high rate of arrest for drug crimes. The programs are called for in state marijuana law, which is intended to help redress the harm caused by decades of racially inequitable enforcement of drug laws.

So far, however, the state’s recreational industry has been dominated by larger, established businesses — including several that appear to be pushing limits on the number of licenses they can control — while smaller players have struggled to raise the necessary capital.

Reserving delivery licenses for participants in the empowerment and equity programs is an attempt to solve that problem, with regulators figuring it’s far cheaper to buy a vehicle, obtain commercial license plates, and install the required lockboxes for cash and cannabis than it is to buy or lease a property and build out a retail or growing operation.

“Exclusive access to lower-cost licenses will allow prospective entrepreneurs who aren’t necessarily well-connected or privileged with unlimited resources to have a fair chance,” commissioner Shaleen Title said after the meeting.

Delivery is allowed in several other states where marijuana is legal, including California, Oregon, and Nevada, though those states take different approaches to questions around local control and which companies are permitted to conduct deliveries.

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The commission’s initial proposal in early 2018 to allow delivery operations was met with harsh criticism from the administration of Governor Charlie Baker. Officials in his cabinet insisted at the time that the commission should get the basic brick-and-mortar retail market going before turning to more complex and controversial license types such as delivery.

The commission has now done so, with 16 recreational shops open, and more on the way soon. Nonetheless, a spokesman for Baker said Friday that the administration still maintains other objections it had articulated last year. Those include concerns that delivery would drive up marijuana consumption rates, result in sales to minors under 21, and lead to diversion of products to the illicit market.

McBride and the commission tried to address those criticisms with a series of restrictions on delivery operations.

Under the proposal, consumers would be required to visit a retail marijuana store in person and present a valid ID to register as an eligible delivery customer. Drivers would double-check the ID upon delivery, and require customers to sign a manifest — similar to the state’s requirements for alcohol deliveries.

Delivery vehicles would be tracked in real-time by GPS, while the commission’s existing “seed-to-sale” inventory tracking system would note the movement of individual products as they are transferred in turn from store to vehicle to consumer.

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Initially, customers could pay in cash, but the commission agreed the system should eventually be debit-cards-only — something that the federal prohibition on marijuana and the lack of banking services makes difficult.

Two registered workers would have to be present at all times, with one staying in the vehicle while the other brings marijuana to a customer’s door. Workers would also be required to wear body cameras and film every customer interaction, a measure that prompted strong objections from Title.

“I feel very strongly that if you’re receiving a delivery and open the door, you should not be videotaped,” Title said. “When a person is in their home, they have a right to privacy.”

McBride said she came around to supporting delivery after concluding that a clear standard delineating legal and illicit delivery operations — of which there are many operating openly in the state — would be a benefit to consumers, companies, and law enforcement agencies alike.

David Torrisi, who leads the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, a group of established medical and recreational operators, said his members can reluctantly live with a period of exclusivity for social equity and empowerment applicants. However, he insisted that window should end after a set amount of time; currently, the commission plans to review its exclusivity policy after 24 months.

“An exclusivity period without a sunset date is exclusivity in perpetuity,” Torrisi said. “That would be problematic for our members.”

Commissioners indicated Friday they had reservations about delivery companies and their retail partners using websites such as Weedmaps and Eaze to handle delivery orders, with several commissioners saying it could give those large firms inappropriate power over small local businesses. They voted unanimously to require delivery firms to disclose any contracts they sign with third-party technology platforms.

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“They’d have to satisfy us that the third-party technology company is not controlling them or making it a pseudo-franchise,” commissioner Kay Doyle said. “We want these companies to grow themselves.”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.