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Marijuana cafés closer to opening in Massachusetts, but still a ways off

In this Oct. 2, 2019, photo a customer lights up a marijuana cigarette at Lowell's Original Cannabis Café in Los Angeles.
Richard Vogel
In this Oct. 2, 2019, photo a customer lights up a marijuana cigarette at Lowell's Original Cannabis Café in Los Angeles.

A group of regulators on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission have been on a fact-finding mission, connecting with western states to learn about a variety of "social consumption" lounges, also known as marijuana cafés.

Commissioners Nurys Camargo and Bruce Stebbins are co-chairs of a working group providing information to the CCC about the licensing framework to support the new businesses. They expect them to be lucrative, they said Monday, having learned that stand-alone cafés are the least successful.

"I've heard more folks throughout the country tell us that they have to constantly create engagements within their locations so that people can use the lounges," Camargo said. "In places where there's heavy tourist traffic, like in San Francisco, the lounge space works because there's a lot of traffic."

Camargo told commissioners they will hear more about the licensing framework in the next few months, specifically about what license types would fit in Massachusetts' urban, suburban and rural communities.

Regulators also talked about the training needed for employees to recognize if customers have consumed too much cannabis.

"There was unanimous agreement [in the working group] that advanced program and training requirements must be made available for [employees]," said Commissioner Bruce Stebbins. "Obviously, that involves some of our current training curriculum around recognizing somebody who may have over consumed or is consumed before they arrive at a social consumption licensee's facility."

In the past few months, Massachusetts regulators spoke with their counterparts in California, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada, Stebbins said, discussing building ventilation requirements and public safety.

Once the commission develops a licensing framework for marijuana lounges, it will be up to communities to set other rules.

"Nevada was aware of one local jurisdiction that said, wherever the consumption lounge is, [said], 'We're not going to ticket or tow cars around that property,'" Stebbins said.

If the cars are there in the morning, it's a good sign somebody "did the right thing and either got a ride home or got public transportation or got a rideshare home," he said.

The fact-finding is ongoing, Camargo said.

"We have a whole bunch of other work that we've done that we're not presenting today just because we're trying to do it in pieces," she said.

Also on Monday, Marijuana regulators appointed their head of human resources to serve as acting executive director for the next several weeks, with important budget and policy matters on the horizon.

Chief People Officer Debra Hilton-Creek will serve as acting executive director of the CCC "until the return of" Executive Director Shawn Collins, who is out on parental leave until early December.

Upheaval has gripped the CCC for months, since former CCC Chairwoman Shannon O'Brien announced in July that Collins would be taking parental leave — and then leaving the CCC by the end of the year, apparently incorrectly.

As the State House News Service reported, O'Brien has since apologized, Collins denied that he has any firm plans to leave the agency and O'Brien was suspended by Massachusetts State Treasurer Deb Goldberg based on "[s]everal serious allegations" about O'Brien's behavior.

O'Brien, a former state treasurer and Democratic nominee for governor, has filed a lawsuit last month accusing Goldberg of unlawfully removing her as chairwoman.

This report contains information from the State House News Service.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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