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Massachusetts inches cautiously toward ‘cannabis cafes’

June 1, 2019
FILE -- This Monday, May 20, 2019 file photo shows a marijuana leaf on a plant at a cannabis grow at Loving Kindness Farms in Gardena, Calif. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission voted to accept recommendations of a working group that explored the possibility of licensing social marijuana consumption sites, such as pot bars or cannabis cafes, in the Bay State.(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

BOSTON (AP) — If you’re at least 21 in Massachusetts, you can legally buy recreational marijuana at more than a dozen stores that have opened over the past several months. But when it comes to using those products, the law says you can only do so discreetly and privately.

That could change.

The state’s Cannabis Control Commission voted 3-2 recently to accept the recommendations of a working group that explored the possibility of licensing social-consumption sites for marijuana, a move that potentially would open a new frontier for cannabis businesses and consumers in the Bay State.

The plan calls for a test rollout of such venues in up to a dozen Massachusetts communities. But don’t look for Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes to spring up in the near future. It took more than two years after voters approved a recreational marijuana question for the first retail stores to open, and a full — or even partial — rollout of social-consumption venues could easily take just as long, if it happens at all.

A closer look:

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE PLAN?

The recommendations narrowly approved by the commission allow for a test of social-consumption sites in 12 volunteer communities, including five that participated in the working group: Amherst, North Adams, Provincetown, Somerville and Springfield. Up to seven others that want to participate will be chosen.

State regulators would be authorized to review applications and grant licenses in those communities for establishments such as cannabis cafes, where people could buy and consume marijuana on the premises. The plan also envisions “event host licenses” for certain one-time gatherings — an outdoor concert, perhaps.

The municipalities would have discretion over the types of licenses and how many can be granted.

Providing opportunities for minority-owned businesses and others that have to date been largely excluded from the legal marijuana industry is listed among the “primary attributes” of the pilot program.

Data collected during the trial period will determine if — and when — social-consumption sites would be allowed elsewhere in Massachusetts.

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WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?

The working group identified and attempted to address several concerns with social-consumption sites, including the potential for underage pot use, impaired driving and smoking-related health concerns.

Licensees would be required to have plans in place for assuring that no one under 21 enters an on-site consumption area. Employees of the establishments would be required to complete “responsible server” training that includes guidance on cannabis potency and THC absorption times to prevent overserving of patrons.

Establishments also would need to figure out how to determine when a customer is too impaired to drive and have a plan to assist those customers in finding alternative transportation. This part is tricky because there is currently no approved standard for marijuana impairment, and the effects of some products, notably edibles, take considerably longer to show up than others.

Under the working group’s plan, smoking marijuana would not be allowed at cannabis cafes or other indoor establishments, for health and safety reasons. Indoor vaping would be allowed, if the building has adequate ventilation.

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WHEN MIGHT ALL THIS START?

Likely not anytime soon.

The commission has invited the public to offer input on the plan, and final regulations would have to be drafted and approved.

The Legislature must also provide at least tacit approval for the plan. Secretary of State William Galvin has determined the state’s current marijuana law doesn’t provide a mechanism for voters in a city or town to weigh in on whether on-site consumption should be allowed in their communities.

Bills to achieve that have been filed in the House and Senate, but no public hearing has been scheduled and it doesn’t appear to be among current priorities for lawmakers.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who would be called upon to sign any such legislation, has been highly skeptical of cannabis cafes but hasn’t ruled them out in the future.

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WHAT HAVE OTHER MARIJUANA STATES DONE?

Nearly every U.S. state with legal recreational marijuana has grappled with the question of social use, with differing outcomes.

The working group said it examined rules in other states, including Alaska’s recently approved law that allows pot to be used in designated areas within some stores that sell it.

San Francisco and some other California communities have moved to allow pot lounges, and the Las Vegas City Council approved a plan earlier this month to authorize venues in the city, though not in casinos.

Last year, then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill to allow marijuana retailers to create so-called tasting rooms.

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