Worcester’s Green Rush

Jason Savio / Photography by Demet Senturk

It could be a green summer in Worcester this year. After much deliberation and planning, the legalization of selling recreational marijuana in Massachusetts is right around the corner. n But what will this look like in Worcester? While nothing yet is set in stone, the picture is becoming clearer as we approach the finish line.

Where we are now

Worcester voters said yes to Question 4 in 2016 — the state legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana — by a close 55/45 margin, opening up WooTown to become commercially friendly to recreational weed for those 21 years and older. But since then, there has been much debate across the state on how to implement the new law.

To sort through the confusion, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission has been tasked with developing regulations for the use of recreational and medicinal marijuana.

The commission released a draft of regulations in December, outlining different recreational license categories, rules and restrictions. The goal is to have the regulations finalized by March 15, allowing for the first applications for recreational marijuana businesses to be available April 1 and setting up the possibility of licenses being issued as soon as June 1.

What that means, in short, is that places like cannabis cafés and pot shops could begin popping up in town this summer. Under the new law, marijuana retailers are allowed to sell recreational marijuana products to consumers and licensed marijuana cultivators are allowed to produce and sell marijuana products to the aforementioned establishments.

Among the retailer options discussed by the Cannabis Control Commission are two types of on-site social consumption licenses. The first is a primary-use license for places like a cannabis cafés, where more than 50 percent of their business is from marijuana sales. The second is a mixed-use license, where marijuana is not the primary source of income — think a massage parlor where cannabis oils would be offered or a restaurant that uses marijuana as an ingredient in some of its dishes.

Home delivery of recreational marijuana is another license that is being considered (medical marijuana delivery already exists). Eight license categories in total are included in the draft regulations.

The licensing process for these businesses starts at the state level, but the municipality where the business will be located will also play a role. Of course, there is still time for the current draft of regulations to change, because they are, after all, just that: a draft. The Cannabis Control Commission traveled across the state in February to hold formal public hearings to get comments and feedback on what it has so far. Ultimately, what the commission heard could factor into any changes that need to be made before the March deadline.

But the powers that be in the city of Worcester aren’t wasting any time and have already started shaping their own approach to how they intend to add recreational weed to Worcester’s neighborhoods.

Worcester’s Way

With the Cannabis Control Commission’s draft regulations released, officials in Worcester have started their own outline for how they plan to implement the state’s decisions at a municipal level.

In a letter by City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr., issued to the city council, the city manager outlined his proposal of recommendations for how the new state laws will fit in Worcester.

One of the choices that stands out the most is that there can be, at most, 15 recreational marijuana businesses given the green light. Augustus recommended the highest limit allowed to be no more than 20 percent of the off-premises liquor licenses, creating a cap at 15 based on the 74 off-premises alcohol licenses already here.

“The first point where we as a city can say ‘no more’ is at 15,” said Jake Sanders, coordinator of intergovernmental affairs and municipal initiatives at the city manager’s office. “It would be against the legislation for us to have two and then say we’re not having anymore. We don’t have any right to say that.”

The 15 licenses handed out could possibly be a mix of different types of recreational marijuana businesses based on what the Cannabis Control Commission ends up approving.

“Based on our interpretation (of the draft regulations) that all fits under that 15 number,” said Sanders of the various licenses. “There will be 15 entities in the city, and maybe one of them will have a delivery component, one of them will be a dispensary retailer, so the thought is it will be just the 15. The makeup of those 15 slots — because of the different licenses people can apply for — it’s unclear right now what the breakdown of those 15 will be in terms of the type of license granted by the state.”

If you want to get green, though, you’re going to have to pay up. Under the new state law, the maximum tax rate on the retail sale of cannabis is 20 percent. Making up that 20 percent is an existing 6.25 percent state sales tax and a state excise tax of 10.75 percent, leaving an optional 3 percent municipal tax provision left over. And, yes, Worcester has decided to accept that offer and include it in your fee.

And if you want to open your own pot place, you’re going to have to dig deep in your pockets, too. The new state regulations force both recreational and medicinal marijuana establishments to fulfill a “host community agreement” that can includes a “community impact fee” if the town decides to pursue it. The fee can be no more than 3 percent of the gross sales of the business. Worcester will be looking to collect on this as well, according to the city manager’s letter.

There is obvious concern about the addition of recreational pot shops, one of which is its impact on neighborhoods and children. The Cannabis Control Commission is leaving it up to the towns to decide on acceptable places for these marijuana businesses to open shop, and the city manager has recommended zoning restrictions to keep them from being within 300 feet of schools, the same rule that already applies to medicinal marijuana facilities.

Sanders noted that while the city council has tentatively approved most of these recommendations, there won’t be any real progress made until the Cannabis Control Commission issues their final regulations.

“There won’t be any true movement until the state finalizes things,” he said.

Recreational vs. medicinal marijuana

With recreational marijuana entities about to roll into Worcester, where does that leave the medicinal shops, or shops that sell product to grow your own? There are four companies that have provisional licenses to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Worcester, but none have opened yet. Now, with the recreational date looming, they have what some might see as competition about to enter the game.

But that’s not the case if you ask those already in it.

Medicinal facilities should remain unworried, since the majority of patients who seek them out are in search of something different than casual recreational users, according to Peter DeCaro, CEO of the yet-to-be-opened Medicinal Alternatives, Inc.

Whereas recreational smokers are — to put it bluntly (pun intended) — looking to get high, medicinal users are not. They therefore have no need for the high-delivering compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Instead, medicinal smokers want CBD (cannabidiol), a compound in the marijuana plant proven to deliver relief for various ailments without the side effects of getting stoned. Medical marijuana facilities are able to cater to these people by supplying strains that have little-to-no trace of THC and instead emphasize CBD.

Ken Helinski is operations manager at Green Zone Hydroponics and Supplies, a one-stop shop for gardening supplies needed to grow cannabis. Helinski said that right now business is good and he isn’t concerned about what the inclusion of recreational shops might bring.

“There will always be people who will want to grow the product on their own because it will be only a fraction of the cost that a dispensary will charge,” he said. “The dispensary will probably be $300-$350 an ounce, whereas, you can grow that at your house for only $40 an ounce.”

As for the medicinal side of things, Helinksi, who says he has been benefitting from cannabis for medical purposes for more than 30 years, thinks those businesses will also be fine.

“The plant is an amazing beneficial plant in many, many areas,” said Helinski. “I know people who have gotten rid of most of their prescription drugs, if not all of them, just by using cannabis on a daily basis. It’s not just smoking to get high. It’s using the product in an edible form — or even the CBD part of the plant that benefits the body — and there is zero high associated with it, and a lot of the time, people don’t understand that.”

Clinical and scientific research suggests that CBD can help treat conditions such as diabetes, PTSD, arthritis and depression. CBD is also being studied for its potential as an anti-cancer drug, according to a 2013 article published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

DeCaro is a cancer survivor who champions the positives he believes come from medicinal marijuana.

“Having used the product for my own ailments, I certainly recognize the benefits of it, and that’s part of where my passion comes from — to help apply these benefits to other patients seeking alternative forms of relief, particularly from opiates,” said DeCaro.

But from a business standpoint, there is a tinge of concern DeCaro feels with welcoming recreational businesses.

“Am I concerned that some stores will hurt the market and prolong the stigma associated with marijuana?” he asked. “I guess I’m concerned, but I trust those of us that are in the industry that we’re all seeking to do the right thing in delivering the highest level of product and service delivery. And I see the two markets being different.”

Helinksi, meanwhile, hasn’t ruled out trying his luck at applying for a recreational selling license.

“It’s definitely something we’re thinking about,” he said.

On the horizon

There is still much work to be done before we see any sort of recreational weed shops or businesses in town later this year. Hiccups and unforeseen obstacles will likely appear, causing more doubt and concern. What will this mean for the black market? Will this change the overall outlook on marijuana as a gateway drug? Only time will tell.

Helinski, for his part, thinks it will be good for Worcester.

“Just having a safe product that people can go and purchase, and you don’t have to go to the black market — it’s tested, so you know that the product is safe — I think that’s very important and just everything else that comes along with the legal industry,” he said. “There are huge benefits throughout the whole system.”

4/20 in 508

From London to Jerusalem, Jamaica, to D.C. every year, cannabis enthusiasts gather to celebrate the cannabis holiday 4/20. The origins of 4/20, celebrated every year on April 20, remain a mystery. Some people believe that the name 4/20 comes from the California police code for “smoking in progress.” Others believe that it’s named after the 420 active chemicals in marijuana – though there are actually 500. The most solid story to date is that 4/20 originated from a group of high school students in the 1970s who smoked every day at 4:20 p.m., which led the ritual to spread and become an annual celebration. Whatever the origins are, there is no doubt that this counter-culture cannabis holiday has spread into the mainstream.

While for some 4/20 is a day to get high and have fun, others see the day as an opportunity to highlight the push for legalization. In some cities, 4/20 is celebrated by a gathering of those who use marijuana in public places, but in Worcester, the focus seems to be on public education and business opportunities.

There will be a Cannabis Grower Spring Mixer hosted by the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council in Worcester at 6 p.m. April 7 at the Worcester Lodge of Elks, 233 Mill St., Worcester. The organizers promise information on how to become a licensed cannabis cultivator or processor. Tickets start at $10. For more information, visit massgrower.org.

— Kaiomi Inniss

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