Like its traffic, Boston’s cannabis industry is mired in delays, construction and detours
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches of the 1990s is a little-remembered game show called “What’s the best way?” Billed as “the only game for New Englanders by New Englanders,” it featured Adam Sandler, Glenn Close and Phil Hartman all doing terrible New England accents answering questions from Kevin Nealon about how to get from one part of the region to another.
All of the correct answers involve the word “wicked” and crazy, convoluted directions like “you’re gonna hit a Chevron station and a little pahst that there’s a kid selling fireworks, hang a left by him…” (That, by the way, was the wrong answer; you hang a right at the kid.)
Most major cities in the United States have instituted a grid system for their streets. Philadelphia pioneered the grid back in the 18th century and New York City damn near perfected it, setting a standard for much of the U.S. as it developed. Boston never even tried. To this day, the city is still a network of cow paths and trails that, in some cases, stretch back to its founding as a refuge for puritan farmers fleeing persecution in England.
Complicating matters was the constant “Big Dig” construction project that rerouted 1.5 miles of an interstate under the heart of the city. Work began in 1991 with an estimated completion date of 1998. In reality, it wasn’t completed until 2007.
All told, it made getting anywhere in and around Boston a long, drawn-out process filled with traffic jams, wrong turns, stops and starts and much, much frustration.
It feels like history is repeating itself these days as hopeful entrepreneurs in the legal, adult-use cannabis industry try to find their way through the winding, complicated maze of regulations, stutter-starts and policy delays that makes it seem like, as Hartman’s character said in the sketch, “You can’t get there from here.”
It’s been more than three years since voters in Massachusetts approved recreational cannabis. In its first full year of sales, Bay State retailers sold nearly $400 million worth of the product, the second-highest first-year total of any of the 11 legal states.
But the commonwealth’s largest city, one of the East Coast’s great, progressive urban centers, remains a cannabis desert.
“You can’t go to a dispensary because there’s none open,” Boston City Councilor Kim Janey told me.
As odd as it seems, it’s true. In most states, the large cities are the first to embrace legalization and the first to get stores open, but exactly the opposite has happened in Massachusetts, where none of the 36 recreational shops that have been licensed have opened in Boston, a city that by law should have at least 50 stores, since more than 62% of voters approved adult-use.
So why are there so few shops open around the state and why are there literally none in a city whose residents voted overwhelmingly for legalization?
While the state’s convoluted licensing system plays a part in the slowdown, overall the buck seems to stop at the top.
“There’s a couple of top-down campaigns that I think are largely fueled by prohibitionist rhetoric and that’s coming from both the governor’s office and the mayor’s office,” says attorney Blake Mensing, whose firm focuses on cannabis law, adding that the delays are “endemic to the whole state structure.”
Both Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, opposed legalization.
Walsh “has been very vocal that he is an opponent of marijuana legalization and has dragged his feet on the legalization within the city via granting Host Community Agreements; they’ve granted very few of them,” says David Rabinovitz, CEO of the NewCann Group, a Boston-area cannabis company working to get licensing.
The agreements with local cities are required to begin the license process at the state level, but by the end of 2019, more than three years after the vote, only 13 HCAs and a handful of provisional licenses had been issued for Boston, with no shops yet to open.
But the demand is there, as seen in shops that have been approved in surrounding communities.
“There’s only one store in the Boston metro area right now and that’s NETA in Brookline and they’re seeing 3,000 people a day because it’s the only game in town,” Mensing says.
Because a cannabis business must obtain an HCA before getting a license, City Hall has become the gatekeeper for the industry. That system also gets blamed for the delays.
“Foot-dragging is not the word I would use,” says Bill Hewson, director of marketing and strategy for Berkshire Roots, one of the only companies that has received a provisional license to open a shop in Boston, something they hope to do in the first quarter of 2020. “I would say that it all comes down to the multi layers of licensing and approval requirements in a large city like Boston, especially one with a historical bureaucratic setup.”
Berkshire Roots, named for the mountains on the western side of the state near the New York border, already has a shop open in the small, western city of Pittsfield. While there were hoops to jump through before getting that store open, Hewson admits it was easier than navigating Boston’s licensing.
“The many steps one has to take to open a cannabis business — whether it be with the locality or the Cannabis Control Commission — makes for an onerous regulatory and bureaucratic process,” he says. “That said, Boston is more competitive than Pittsfield.”
Hewson says he’s grateful and excited that Berkshire Roots received its provisional license and attributes his company’s success to its application process and to its success in another part of the state.
“It’s a game you have to accept as the situation and make the best of it,” he says. “I believe that the politics in Boston are always going to be tough. It’s one of the oldest cites in the country with a very embedded bureaucratic system, but that’s the price of doing business in any large, East Coast city.”
One of the sticking points in Boston is a city regulation that prevents any cannabis retail shop from opening within a half-mile radius of another shop, making it difficult for many to find a location before even beginning the application processes required at the local and state level. That law is also giving a lot of power to landlords who have commercial space to rent in a viable zone, leading to, in many cases, exorbitant rent prices that must often be paid for several months before doors can open due to the pace of approvals.
Rabinovitz says he knows of one entrepreneur who has been paying $5,000 per month for more than a year, just to hold a location while he waits for a license.
“It’s hard to be able to find a spot,” he says, recounting his own business’s attempts to find a suitable location in order to begin the convoluted process of getting a conditional use permit, going through the zoning appeals process and getting an HCA before even beginning the state licensing process with the Cannabis Control Commission and then going back to the city to register.
According to Mensing, in Boston it was only in November that finding the best route became a little easier, thanks to the new ordinance written by Janey and signed into law by Walsh.
Janey’s ordinance is primarily focused on social equity to ensure that communities in the city that were most negatively affected by the War on Drugs will have an opportunity to participate in the new, legal market by obligating the city to issue one license to a social equity candidate for every other license it approves. But the new law also creates the Boston Cannabis Commission, which will provide more local control in approvals of licenses and give a preference to local companies and entrepreneurs.
“It’s important we open, ideally, a number of shops in Boston,” Janey says. “This for me is very much a racial justice and economic justice issue.”
So while the ordinance does a great job keeping the city focused on both equity and on keeping the money in Boston, it adds an additional level of bureaucracy to the process and even Janey defers when asked if it will speed the process or help change the mayor’s view on cannabis.
“I can’t speak to what motivates others or what their thought process is,” she says, but adds that while he was once opposed, Walsh spoke at the bill signing of now seeing the matter through a lens of social justice. “I’m encouraged certainly by that, but then again who knows?”
But Mensing is not so sure, saying the new path will “elongate things.”
“Any bureaucratic process injects waiting periods,” he says, adding that the new commission will be appointed by Walsh, making him wonder if it will be packed with prohibitionists. “Government just never feels a sense of private-sector urgency.”
I tend to believe him. I contacted Walsh’s office for comment on this story a good five or six weeks before my deadline. I even spoke with an aide and sent an email with six basic questions about the mayor’s policy on cannabis and the rollout of retail licenses. I waited literally as long as I possibly could to file this story, trying to get the mayor’s comments into it.
Walsh did not answer the questions before this magazine went to print.
It’s hard to know what’s next for Boston’s cannabis industry and its entrepreneurial hopefuls. Hewson expects the new Berkshire Roots to open in early 2020, but even Janey is unsure of what will happen.
“We shall see where this goes,” she says. “What this industry is showing in the early stages is it can go anywhere.”
And in the long run, she’s probably right.
Even in Boston they’ll find a way to get there from here.