Massachusetts was the first state to legalize marijuana in 2012. Now, five years later, it’s clear that legalization has been a success by many metrics: more than $1 billion in tax revenue and Boston is one of the fastest-growing cannabis markets worldwide.

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Five Years After Legalization, Cannabis Is Thriving In Massachusetts




When Massachusetts voters were asked in late 2016 whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use, the state had previously authorized medicinal marijuana. The vote was not close, with supporters citing employment, tax money, and, well, people wanting to use marijuana legally. Reality doesn’t always live up to expectations, but it did in this instance. Yes, the business is still in its infancy, especially in terms of establishing a fair playing field for companies. However, when it comes to the influence of this new business on employment, real estate investment, municipal tax income, and other factors, these are genuinely exciting times.

David Narkewicz wasn’t simply a proponent of marijuana legalization in Northampton. He was the very first client.

That was three years ago, when NETA debuted on Conz Street as the state’s first legal recreational cannabis shop. With cannabis companies sprouting up all across the city and state, the departing mayor feels his original excitement was warranted.

“We observed what other jurisdictions had done, and a lot of Massachusetts legislation was predicated on looking at laws in other states when they were attempting to put up the regulatory framework,” Narkewicz said. “I supported legalizing first and foremost as a public-policy measure, but I also saw a chance for community investment.”

He went on to say that the city is regarded as a destination with a thriving retail sector, arts and cultural venues, and many restaurants and pubs. “So my impression and hope was that this would be a fresh investment in the town, as well as a new source of employment and cash, and yet another incentive to visit Northampton.” I believe we approached this in a fairly forward-thinking manner.”

Northampton now has eight adult-use cannabis retail outlets, seven manufacturers, four growing facilities, and a testing facility. Those figures seem to be increasing by the month.

Meanwhile, excise taxes on adult-use cannabis have raised more than $4.3 million in three years. “This allows us to keep paying schools, police, fire, and DPW, as well as all of the other services we give as a city.”

Not only did Mark Cutting and Matt Yee see opportunity in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but also in Northampton’s embracing of it. They recently launched Enlite, the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, off the Coolidge Bridge roundabout, last week, and they have a long-term strategy for it predicated on the concept that this is still a developing market.

“We believed there could be possibilities outside the retail area, given our history in business and the Yee family’s background in restaurants and entertainment,” Cutting said. “At some point in the future, there may be chances to combine cannabis use with eating or entertainment — but that is not currently allowed here.”

Because of the cross-pollination, Yee believes that the sheer number of cannabis firms in Massachusetts — about 190 and counting, not only in retail, but also in cultivation, production, and wholesale — is making it easier for all stakeholders to prosper. It’s why Enlite has followed the lead of many other local dispensaries in cooperating with small-batch cannabis producers.

“It was challenging early on because [product] availability was so limited,” he said. “You had to be vertically integrated to supply yourself.” “However, Western Massachusetts has been really kind to small-scale growers, and we’re thrilled to be able to exhibit them here.”

“A lot of the multi-state operators don’t particularly prefer firms like that to sit on their shelf,” Cutting said. However, we’re essentially an open market allowing some of these manufacturers to share shelf space and promote their products here in the community.”

Total sales in Massachusetts are increasing with each new shop that opens, surpassing $2 billion earlier this month, a figure that even supporters may not have predicted so quickly after voters authorized recreational cannabis in November 2016, four years after approving medicinal marijuana.

Cannabis, according to Jeff Hayden, has spawned hundreds of new employment in Holyoke, with a wide range of skills.

And those companies mean employment, according to Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Holyoke Community College’s Business and Community Services (HCC).

“During the pandemic, we’ve had significant levels of unemployment; both Springfield and Holyoke unemployment rates have been higher than the national and state averages. “We see a great need to link individuals to the workforce in both communities,” Hayden told BusinessWest.

That’s one of the reasons why, in late 2019, HCC became a founding partner of the Cannabis Career Center. He reasoned that since HCC existed to provide people with the skills they need to acquire employment, then the potential of cannabis couldn’t be overlooked — particularly in a city equaled only by Northampton in its enthusiastic acceptance of this new business.

He stated, “Our moving into cannabis was really simply another endeavor on our side to discover occupations that people can get into at an entry level, or obtain a higher career.” “It’s critical that we discover those who are jobless or underemployed, those who have minimal education or work experience, and place them in jobs and on a career path.”

Cannabis, on the other hand, is transforming Holyoke in other ways, particularly in the canal area, where long-abandoned mill buildings are reviving with cannabis cultivation, manufacture, and sales.

That is correct, both literally and metaphorically. Cannabis has shown to be a durable economic engine, one that not only survived but flourished during the epidemic, five years after that pivotal decision and three years after companies began to operate. And no one knows for sure what the ceiling is.

Getting to the Bottom of the Problems

In what is becoming a hyper-competitive market, not everything has gone well. Enlite is the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee admits that the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to MBE and social-equity opportunities — with the goal of assisting communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access cannabis entrepreneurship opportunities — has yielded mixed results.

“It’s a really hot subject in the business right now.” “In the past year or so, we’ve had a lot of commissioners shift out, and a lot of folks in the program saw CCC failing them in terms of bringing those applications to the finish line,” Yee added. “It’s a mix of factors: operators with limited resources might be problematic. Obviously, you’ve got your multi-state operators that have a million dollars set up for their attorneys and legal teams, allowing them to move things forward a little quicker. Those are significant difficulties.

For firms like GTI, Holyoke’s mill neighborhood has become an ideal place for cannabis growing.

However, new commissioners are “really focused on those applications and aiding them, finding out where the pain areas are and getting them to the finish line and open,” he said. We’ve had some traction with it.”

The procedure might be complicated. 

“Access to finance is the greatest challenge – because it’s not nationally legal,” Cutting added. “Getting through the CCC is a trip, and if you make a mistake and don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s, it gets rejected, and you have to start all over again, and you may not go back to the same line you were in — you may end up at the bottom of the pile.” Getting back to the top of the heap may be a lengthy and hard journey. And may God help you if you make another blunder.”

Dealing with a city that didn’t restrict the number of application approvals helped, he said. “We met down with the mayor, and it was the most smooth, simplest procedure you can imagine, as opposed to other communities that have either opted out, had a lottery, or have severely limited the amount of growers or shops they allow.”

Northampton voters supported cannabis — first medically, then recreationally — at a considerably greater rate than the state average, according to Narkewicz, and the city’s authorities followed suit.

“We put in place zoning standards that were not onerous; we’re effectively allowing retail cannabis anyplace we allow retail, and manufacturing was largely the same,” the mayor said. “And I believe we got a good reaction – a lot of individuals eager to set up shop in Northampton.”

He does get queries from individuals who ask whether the market is too crowded, and he responds quickly. “There are 17 liquor outlets in Northampton.” Nobody has ever complained that we have too many booze outlets. To me, this is a legitimate sector, and the free market, which is why I’ve opposed liquor license limitations for years, since they stifle economic growth in a community like Northampton by raising the cost of licenses and making it more difficult for entrepreneurs.

“There’s a chance to get in on the ground floor, as well as a chance to advance in these fields.” It’s not like Holyoke has 100 growers or 50 workers with extensive retail dispensary customer service expertise. In this field, no one has more than ten years of experience. So, in Massachusetts, it’s all about what the job applicant brings to the table.”

“Putting up barriers like that defeats the purpose and works against the goals of this new industry,” he continued. “In an industry like cannabis, which is trying to focus on equity and economic empowerment, particularly for populations that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and the war on drugs,” he continued.

Narkewicz also said that each new firm may create 20 or 25 new employment in the area.

Cannabis implies hundreds of new employment in Holyoke in a short period of time. And the range of professions appeals to us,” Hayden said, saying that someone with strong customer-service skills might work as a patient advocate, while someone with an agricultural experience could work in cultivation, and someone with a scientific bent could work in extraction and infusion.

Companies are searching for people with wide talents who only require and desire to be schooled in the subtleties of this industry and their specialized duties, he said.

“There’s a chance to get in on the bottom floor, as well as a chance to advance in these vocations,” Hayden added. “It’s not like we have 100 growers or 50 employees with good customer-service expertise in retail dispensaries in Holyoke.” In this field, no one has more than ten years of experience. So, in Massachusetts, it’s all about what the job applicant brings to the table.”

Kathleen Proper, the chief human resources officer for Holyoke-based Canna Provisions, stated as much during a panel discussion that followed HCC’s recent Cannabis Career Fair, headlined “Cultivating an Industry.”

“Our most important goal is to provide excellent customer service,” she said. “So whether you’ve worked in retail, worked in a restaurant, waited tables, or tended bar, all of those abilities work out pretty nicely.” We tend to do pretty well with folks who have served tables or tended bar, despite the fact that cannabis retail is a different animal than traditional retail.”

Word on the street is that

Yee is unconcerned about the ninth, tenth, or eleventh dispensary that will open in Northampton. He, like Narkewicz, thinks the legal cannabis sector is booming, with saturation still a long way off.

“Our greatest rival, I constantly say, is the black market.” Many people continue to purchase on the black market since the prices are much lower,” he added, adding that an eighth-ounce of cannabis may cost $50 in a store and $30 on the street, with no tax.

“A lot of people who are set in their ways know which brands they favor on the market and which farmers they want to deal with… He went on to say, “The black market is still very, very robust.” “As more intriguing goods hit the shelves here at a commercial dispensary and costs continue to decrease — and we’re seeing a bit more of that — we’ll see people transferring from the black market to the commercial market,” he says. As a result, there’s still a sizable untapped client base.”

Cutting agreed that as the legal cannabis market grows and expands, the sheer amount of goods would cut costs, attracting more customers in addition to the aesthetic and educational experience that many cannabis stores promise.

“In addition, every product on our shelves has been thoroughly tested, so you know exactly what you’re getting. You don’t have test findings on the black market, and you don’t know what metals, pesticides, mold, or yeast are in their goods. They don’t have to test their product; they just roll it out and sell it from wherever they’re growing it.

Cutting said, “Here, it’s a safe, pleasant atmosphere.” “You’re not purchasing stuff on the black market while looking over your shoulder.” And I believe the market will finally die out. Not fully, but I believe you will see it with time. ‘Hey, do I want to be cautious or roll with this and face the chance of an unproven product?’ others may ask. Most individuals, I believe, will want to be on the safe side.”

Concerns raised by cannabis opponents about rising crime and diversion issues, according to Narkewicz, have simply not materialized. And, in retrospect, he’s happy to have been the city’s first client in the city’s fastest-growing business.

“Obviously, we had a little traffic and parking congestion at the beginning,” he told BusinessWest, “but I don’t know many mayors who are concerned about too many people coming to visit their city.” “Having a problem is a nice thing to have.”

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