Pot testing facilities approved, sales still months away

CNHI file photoOne of the largest roadblocks to launching the retail market for legal marijuana in Massachusetts was eliminated Thursday as the Cannabis Control Commission approved provisional licenses for two testing laboratories.

BOSTON — A state panel approved two marijuana testing laboratories on Thursday and several licenses for retail pot shops, including one in Salem, but the businesses aren't likely to open anytime soon.

The five-member Cannabis Control Commission gave a green light to license two independent testing facilities — CDX Analytics of Salem and MCR Labs of Framingham — both of which currently test and certify the drug for the state’s medical marijuana program.

"As of this date, the applicant has demonstrated its compliance with the laws and regulations of the commonwealth," said Shawn Collins, the commission's executive director, said of CDX Analytics' request to open a testing lab at 39 Norman St. in Salem. "They've also secured a host community agreement."

To sweeten the pot, the company pledged to donate money to local charities including Project Cope and Girls Inc. in Lynn, he added.

The commission also approved three provisional licenses for retail marijuana, including a proposal by Alternative Therapies Group Inc. in Salem to sell recreational marijuana from its existing business. The firm already operates a medical marijuana dispensary in the city.

Retail pot shops were allowed to open beginning July 1, but setbacks in getting state and local regulatory approvals have delayed the rollout.

To date, the cannabis commission has received more than 2,400 applications for shops and growing facilities, and regulators are currently reviewing 112 license applications from dozens of companies.

A map released by the commission shows license requests by county, including five in Essex County and 11 in Middlesex.

So far, only a few have gotten a green light and the applicants cannot open for business until their products are tested for potential contaminants, as required by law.

"Getting testing facilities up and running is a major piece of the puzzle that will help everything else move forward," said Jim Borghesani, a marijuana consultant and spokesman for the 2016 ballot campaign to legalize its use. "Hopefully now we can get products into these facilities for testing. We've had too many delays."

The commission voted in June to fast-track its review of license applications for testing facilities amid criticism over the delay in recreational sales.

But the lack of testing facilities is one of several factors holding up sales, Borghesani said. Others include local opposition and what he described as a lack of leadership from Gov. Baker and other state officials.

"You would think that with a new industry that's going to create jobs and billions of dollars in revenue, that the governor would say, 'I want this to happen and I'm going to push for it to happen as quickly as possible,'" he said. "But he's done nothing like that."

Slowing the rollout

Only a handful of communities are welcoming recreational pot, which observers say will likely lead to shortages until supplies catch up with demand.

Nearly 190 of 351 cities and towns in the state have imposed bans, moratoriums or other limits on marijuana shops since voters legalized the drug for recreational use, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Those include about two-dozen communities north of Boston that have temporarily banned pot shops from opening after the July 1 date set by the Legislature — including Gloucester, Peabody, Beverly, Methuen and Amesbury.

Others, such as Lawrence, have approved outright bans.

Under the state’s pot law, existing medical marijuana businesses and minority-owned businesses get a first crack at getting into the industry.

Applicants for licenses must pass criminal background checks and get local governments to certify their businesses will meet zoning and other requirements.

Once that information is submitted, the cannabis commission has 90 days to approve or deny an application. Prospective dispensaries still must pass final building and health inspections, as well as employee background checks.

Massachusetts is one of nine states and the District of Columbia to approve recreational pot. It’s one of 29 states and Washington D.C. with medical marijuana programs.

The 2016 voter-approved law allows adults age 21 and older to possess up to 10 ounces of weed, and it authorizes regulated cultivation and retail sales.

Lawmakers who took issue with the original law approved a raft of changes that extended the deadline to open retail pot shops by six months.

Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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