STATE OFFICIALS NEED TO BEGIN the difficult process of implementing systemic, comprehensive regulatory oversight of retail marijuana sales. Fortunately, the existing regulatory system for the sale of alcohol provides an invaluable framework to effectively oversee retail marijuana.
The first order of business will be appointing a three-member Cannabis Control Commission and a 15-member Cannabis Advisory Board. Once appointed by State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, the commission will have complete authority to establish detailed regulations for the licensure and oversight of the cultivation, processing, manufacture, transport, distribution, testing and sale of marijuana in the Bay State.
The new commission would be wise to turn its attention to the current licensure and oversight system for alcohol as it considers how to safely introduce retail marijuana in the Commonwealth.
For example, quota systems for ownership of retail alcohol beverage licenses based on local population and other limits on ownership of licenses and limitations on hours when alcohol can be sold have been important, safety-driven rules. Other regulations, such as minimum consumer prices, labeling and containers, and purity of product rules, will aid the Cannabis Control Commission.
A significant concern as marijuana becomes more accessible is protecting minors. Current prohibitions on point-of-sales marketing of alcohol that appeal to young people as well as comprehensive training and education provide excellent safeguards. Pot shops, like package stores, should be required to aggressively promote messages about responsible use, to recognize false identification and to distinguish under-the-influence behavior. Local zoning ordinances and other community-based restrictions on the location of these new retail facilities will allow cities and towns to determine how best to balance public health and business interests while ensuring conformance with existing rules.
Even as there are important lessons to be drawn from the regulation of alcohol, key differences between the two products will require a more expansive approach to oversight for marijuana. For example, supervision of marijuana cultivation, processing, transportation, and distribution will require far more resources than are needed to address the same components within the alcohol beverages industry.
At the local level, cities and towns also face unique decisions as well in terms of marijuana operations. In addition to zoning for retail storefronts (or outright prohibition along the lines of so-called ‘dry’ communities that ban the sale of alcoholic beverages), community officials must determine appropriate controls for the cultivation, manufacture and processing of marijuana and marijuana products. This stems from the lesser-known referendum provision that pot must be grown in-state.
Consumers might be surprised to learn that point-of-sales operations for marijuana will be structured differently than alcohol sales. Unlike package stores, customers will not be able to enter a retail marijuana store, walk around or peruse products. In Colorado, regulations restrict access to the areas where marijuana products are displayed and sold. Shoppers must first enter a check-in lobby for verification of age before entering a “Restricted Access Area,” which is subject to “reasonable” limits on the number of customers who can be served at any given time. Once admitted, buyers cannot physically touch products. Only employees are allowed to dispense marijuana, oils and so-called ‘edibles,’ or food products that contain marijuana’s active ingredients.
The coming year will surely present challenges to state regulators as they navigate a new landscape of potential marijuana regulations and related concerns from community leaders. The existing regulatory blueprint for alcoholic beverages, however, should serve as the foundation of sound, smart and safe marijuana oversight in Massachusetts.
Frank Anzalotti is the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, a not-for-profit organization that represents retail package stores in the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association took no position on the November referendum that legalized marijuana.