First marijuana dispensary in Amherst eyes recreational sales Article by Michael Connors & Photos by Caroline O'Connor

It’s been more than two years since Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana use for adults 21 years or older. But it was only just days ago that the first two businesses in the entire state started to sell cannabis legally.

Yet for many in the state, a major question still remains: how long will it be until other marijuana shops open?

Tucked away in a corner of the intersection between Route 116 and Meadow Street in Amherst lies an unassuming and plain-looking building, the identity of which can only be determined by the modest signage situated on its front lawn.

The building is no longer an old and sparsely-used auction house. Instead, it is home to RISE Amherst, the town’s first and only operating medical marijuana dispensary.

The waiting room inside of the 'RISE' marijuana dispensary location

Since their ribbon cutting in May, RISE Amherst has been selling marijuana products to patients who have received doctor approval. The dispensary is looking to expand past just medical sales as they prepare their business toward new opportunity created by legalized recreational pot.

The entrance to the 'RISE' marijuana dispensary facility

Considering that the legalization of marijuana is one of the most drastic changes in drug policy in recent years, it would make sense that businesses across both Massachusetts and the country are energetic about getting involved in a new industry.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing the use of cannabis for adult recreational use. In Massachusetts, an adult over 21 can carry up to an ounce of marijuana on their person, own up to 10 ounces in their home and grow up to six cannabis plants under the law.

But patience seems to be the guiding principle in the race to become one of the state’s first retail shops.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), Massachusetts’ marijuana regulatory agency, is tasked with overseeing the implementation of legal weed and the budding retail marijuana business. Currently, only New England Treatment Access in Northampton and Cultivate Holdings in Leicester are selling recreational pot.

RISE Amherst isn’t too worried about the seemingly slow time-frame for rolling out retail sales by the state, said Matt Yee, Massachusetts marketing director for Green Thumb Industries (GTI).

GTI is a national company based out of Illinois that owns RISE Amherst and many other stores across the United States.

“With the regulation of cannabis and opening up to more people, we’ll see a lot of people adopting this product,” Yee said. “It’s going to become pretty important.”

RISE Amherst close to applying for retail pot license

Inside Amherst’s first weed dispensary

Security at RISE Amherst is tight. Anyone coming into the building must show identification to a camera outside the locked front door. Once inside, identification and a medical marijuana card must be shown once again before an associate scans you in through another locked door to a waiting room.

Red couches line the wall of the very professional and modern interior of the second antechamber — walls are adorned with high resolution photos of cannabis plants and tables are covered with reading materials about the many different strains of marijuana.

The next door leads you into the sale room, a large space with walls lined with bowls, bongs, vaporizers and other paraphernalia along with cannabis wax and concentrates showcased in glass cases. There are six points of service circling across the room, where patients can sit down and speak with a specialist. Management at RISE Amherst did not permit The Massachusetts Daily Collegian to identify and quote workers at the dispensary.

Having a high level of service, Yee explained, was essential to a successful operation as an early business in the industry.

“We have a great menu selection, and walking people through all of the items that we have is a really important thing and part of our procedure here,” Yee said. “We’re really lucky to be able to achieve excellence in service.”

Along with their most popular flower products, the dispensary also sells other goods like oils and wax to patients. However, not all of the marijuana sold at the dispensary contains THC, the main psychoactive chemical compound found in cannabis.

“[We sell] CBD and other various cannabinoids,” Yee said, noting that the chemical compound CBD does not get you high in the traditional sense. “CBN is [also] becoming one of the more noted cannabinoids, it’s mostly responsible for sleep aid, but we’re starting to see these products begin to develop here in Massachusetts.”

RISE Amherst has yet to submit an application to the CCC for a retail license, but they are already putting into place procedures to deal with an influx of customers. In addition to the existing sales room, another space, specifically designed for recreational and not medical sales, is currently under construction.

Yee explained that the dispensary works in tandem with eight different cultivators that grow marijuana. One of those cultivation facilities, a 46,000 square foot space with 40 employees and four growing rooms is owned by Green Thumb Industries and located in Holyoke. Samples from batches are then sent to MCR Labs in Framingham, Mass. where it is tested.

Once the batch is approved, the Holyoke facility is able to then package pre-measured marijuana in glass jars to be delivered directly to the dispensary to be sold.

The product they sell now would have to be re-tested, though many of the requirements that medical marijuana must meet would be the same for recreational pot. The only difference between the tests for recreational and medical marijuana would be a different “stamp of approval,” Yee explained.

“We would have medically-tested products and then retail-tested products,” Yee said. “We have a full medical inventory here, we would have to convert that inventory to retail if we wanted to sell it for adult use.”

Black market sales provide an initial challenge to legal stores since illegal pot is not taxed and is therefore cheaper than its legal counterpart, Yee noted. But he said legal cannabis provides consumers with higher quality pot.

“It’s always a competitor as for price. But in a regulated market, quality control is there, testing is there, [and] those are things people gravitate toward,” Yee said.

There is an abundance of other requirements RISE Amherst must fulfill both in Amherst and with the state before they are even considered for a retail license by the CCC. Regardless of the challenges, municipal and state-level policy, RISE Amherst is confident that the dispensary will eventually sell retail marijuana.

There are only two stores selling recreational marijuana to adults in Massachusetts. Where are the others?

Navigating new policy

Amherst is put in an unfamiliar position with this change in drug policy. Though marijuana must be taken seriously, the industry should not be overlooked, said Geoff Kravitz, the economic development director for the Town of Amherst.

“I think that honestly the most difficult thing is that this is a completely new industry with a product that still is federally illegal to consume…[but] it’s clearly something that people in Amherst want to have access to,” Kravitz said. “We’re a fairly small town and we don’t want to be overrun [with too many shops], but still be able to provide access to our residents.”

In keeping with state regulations, the Town of Amherst and RISE Dispensaries must negotiate a host community agreement, a document that sets out the responsibilities between the town and a retail marijuana establishment.

RISE Amherst has an agreement with Amherst for their medical sales, but a new one must be agreed upon before they can send an application to the CCC for a retail license.

A business must hold a community outreach meeting, which RISE Amherst did in early October, before the town manager gives a final sign-off on the store’s application to the CCC.

Adam Robbins, a market development manager with GTI, focuses on assisting RISE dispensaries through the legal processes of gaining a retail license. According to Robbins, the dispensary had also met with elected officials in Amherst, such as members from the select board and the board of health.

“They went ahead [and met with us,] and it was kind of like an interview process,” Robbins said.

RISE Amherst had learned after that meeting that their dispensary, along with a few other companies looking to open in Amherst, had been chosen to enter into a preliminary host community agreement negotiation with the town.

“We’re now in that phase,” Robbins said.

The agreement also offers the town a gift of money from the operators to be used toward any costs the town might incur in regard to the operation of the dispensary. Dealing with an increase in traffic flow and community outreach education programs are usually what the funds are used for, Robbins explained.

Looking ahead

Despite the seemingly overwhelming number of town residents who are in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use — 74.5 percent of Amherst voters put their mark of approval on the ballot measure in 2016 — there are still some concerns.

One of the major worries is the dispensary’s close proximity to the University of Massachusetts. The business is located down the road from one of the most popular undergraduate off-campus living areas, the Townehouses.

“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. We have the youngest median age in the Commonwealth at just over 21 years, which means about half of our population is under 21 years old,” Kravitz said. “Educating those people about what is legal and what isn’t legal is a huge hurdle in Amherst.”

The University agrees. Since the U.S. Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and ecstasy and UMass receives federal funding, the possession and use of cannabis is illegal under federal law on campus.

An open dialogue between the University and RISE Amherst has been a priority ever since the store was looking to open in the town, Yee explained.

“We’ve engaged with leadership and I’ve sat down personally with [the] chancellor,” Yee said. “We’ve sat down with various vice chancellors of departments, student life and public relations. They’ve all been through this facility and we’re pretty transparent with everybody at UMass. Really, the key is just communicating well and building relationships with our surrounding communities.”

But Adam Robbins of Green Thumb Industries explained that a lot of the concerns they have received from community members fall under common questions they have received in the past.

“A lot of the concerns that we have heard from people in the community fall under the general ‘Cannabis 101’ questions. People who are unsure of the product and how it interacts with the human body, the differences between strains or different methods of administration of cannabis,” Robbins said. “Questions about our hours of operation and how we would separate our medical operation from our adult-use operation. Those types of questions.”

GTI is certain that Amherst and surrounding towns would see a serious economic boost. Early involvement in a nascent, regulated and competitive industry could help reinvigorate a community, said Linda Marsicano, vice president of communications at GTI.

“In Holyoke for example, where we have our growth facility, it has really revitalized the community with the old mills that were no longer operational. It created jobs, good-paying jobs with benefits,” Marsicano explained.

Kravitz is optimistic about the potential benefits of marijuana in Amherst as well. In addition to the 17 percent sales and excise tax put on cannabis sales by the state, Amherst has opted to also add on an additional local three percent tax — a total of a 20 percent.

“We’re hopeful from a revenue perspective that it can go to education or public works or help fill gaps in the budget that would otherwise fall to property owners,” Kravitz said.

Optimism surrounding potential economic gains is not unwarranted. According to the Colorado Department of Education, since 2015 marijuana excise tax revenue had added around $200 million to a capital construction fund focused on improving existing schools and building new ones.

Glass pipes that can be purchased at 'RISE' marijuana dispensary

And according to a report by the Marijuana Policy Group, a research and consulting firm concentrated on analyzing legal cannabis markets in the United States, retail marijuana in Colorado created more than 18,000 full-time jobs and almost $2.4 million in economic output for the state in 2015 alone.

Figures like these gives GTI confidence that more retail marijuana stores could eventually be seen across America.

“There has been pretty consistent momentum across the country when it comes to legalization. I think national legalization is an unpredictable hurdle,” Robbins said. “But again we’re seeing that these highly regulated markets are having success in their programs and medical patients are getting access to the medicine they need and adult-use sales are providing a well-needed boost in local municipalities.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mpconnors@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @mikepconnors.

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