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Rolling Along

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Massachusetts had already legalized medical marijuana when voters were faced with another question in late 2016: whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use. The vote wasn’t close, sailing through on talk of jobs, tax revenue, and, well, people wanting to light up legally. Reality doesn’t always live up to promise, but in this case, it has. Yes, the industry is still facing growing pains, particularly when it comes to creating a level playing field for entrepreneurs. But when it comes to this new industry’s impact on jobs, real-estate investment, municipal tax revenue, and more, these are truly high times.

 

David Narkewicz wasn’t just a supporter of cannabis coming to Northampton. He was the first customer.

That was three years ago, when NETA opened on Conz Street and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis. Today, with cannabis businesses proliferating in the city and across Massachusetts, the outgoing mayor believes his initial enthusiasm was justified.

“We saw the experience of other states, and a lot of the Massachusetts law, when they were trying to put together the regulatory framework, was based on looking at laws in other states,” Narkewicz said. “First and foremost, I supported legalization just as a public-policy meaure, but I also saw an opportunity for investment in the community.”

Elaborating, he said the city is known as a destination with a vibrant retail sector, arts and culture establishments, and plenty of restaurants and bars. “So my sense, and my hope, was that this would be a new investment in the community and a new source of jobs and revenue, and another reason to come to Northampton. I think we took a pretty forward-looking approach to this.”

Today, Northampton is home to eight retail dispensaries for adult-use cannabis, seven manufacturers, four cultivation facilities, and a testing lab. Those numbers grow seemingly by the month.

Meanwhile, three years of excise taxes on adult-use cannabis have brought in more than $4.3 million. “That helps us continue funding schools, police, fire, DPW, all the services we provide as a city.”

Mark Cutting and Matt Yee certainly saw potential, not only in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but Northampton’s embrace of it. Just last week, they opened the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, Enlite, just off the Coolidge Bridge rotary — and they have a long-term vision for it based on the idea that this is a still-evolving industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job. It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

“We thought that, with our background in business and the Yee family’s background in restaurants and entertainment, there may be potential beyond even the retail space,” Cutting said. “There may be opportunities to have some type of dining or some type of entertainment along with cannabis partaking at some point in time — though that’s not legal here yet.”

Yee noted that the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts — almost 190 and counting, not just in retail, but in cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesaling — is making it easier for all players to succeed, because of the cross-pollination. It’s why Enlite has adopted the model of many area dispensaries of partnering with boutique makers of cannabis products.

“Early on, it was difficult because [product] availability was so low, you had to be vertically integrated to supply yourself,” he noted. “But Western Mass. has been really kind to small-scale producers, and we’re really happy to showcase them here at this location.”

Cutting added that “a lot of the multi-state operators don’t necessarily like companies like that to sit on their shelves. But we’re basically an open market for some of these producers to share shelf space and advertise their product here locally.”

With each business open, total sales in Massachusetts increase — crossing the $2 billion mark, in fact, earlier this month, a number even proponents might not have expected so soon after voters approved legalizing recreational cannabis in November 2016, four years after giving a similar go-ahead to medical marijuana.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says cannabis has created fertile ground for hundreds of new jobs in Holyoke — and an impressive diversity of them.

And those businesses mean jobs, said Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

“We’ve experienced high levels of unemployment during the pandemic; both Springfield and Holyoke unemployment have been ahead of the federal and state average. In both communities, we see a strong need to connect people to the workforce,” Hayden told BusinessWest.

That’s one reason HCC became a lead partner in the creation of the Cannabis Career Center in late 2019. If HCC exists to give people the skills they need to get into jobs, he reasoned, then the potential of cannabis couldn’t be ignored — especially in a city rivaled only, perhaps, by Northampton in its full-on embrace of this new industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job,” he explained. “It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

But cannabis is changing Holyoke in other ways, too, notably in its canal district, where long-neglected mill buildings are springing to life with cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and sales.

David Narkewicz

David Narkewicz

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing.”

“The private investment in Holyoke as a result of this industry coming to Massachusetts has been extremely significant,” Hayden said. “Cannabis companies are buying properties that have been long underutilized — and it’s not like acquiring a building and leaving it as is; they’re investing significant dollars to improve it and create new jobs in the city, literally hundreds of jobs already. And, obviously, the tax revenue generated for the city is significant. This is a growing industry in Massachusetts.”

That’s true — literally and figuratively. Five years after that critical vote and three years after businesses started opening, cannabis has proven to be a hardy economic driver, one that not only survived the pandemic, but thrived throughout it. And no one really knows what the ceiling may be.

 

Ironing Out the Issues

Not everything has been smooth in what is becoming a hyper-competitive market. Enlite is the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee concedes that the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to MBE and social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results.

“It’s a really big topic in the industry. We’ve had a lot of commissioners change out in the last year or so, and a lot of people in the program saw CCC failing them as far as getting those applicants to the finish line,” Yee explained. “It’s a combination of things: operators with not a lot of resources can be an issue. Obviously you’ve got your multi-state operators with a million dollars allocated to their lawyers and legal teams, so they’re able to have the resources to get them pushed through a little bit faster. Those are big issues.”

Holyoke’s mill district

Holyoke’s mill district has become a promising location for cannabis cultivation for companies like GTI.

But things are changing, he added, with new commissioners “really focusing on those applicants and assisting them, figuring out where the pain points are and getting them to the finish line and open. We’ve been seeing some traction on that.”

The process can be a tricky one (see related story on page 22).

“The biggest issue — because it’s not federally legal — is access to capital,” Cutting said. “It’s a journey getting through the CCC, and if you do 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 don’t necessarily go back to the same queue you were in — you may go to the bottom of the pile. And it can be a long, painful process to get back to the top of the pile. And God forbid you make a mistake again.”

It helped, he said, to deal with a city that didn’t limit the number of application approvals. “We sat down with the mayor, and it was the most seamless, easiest process you can ever imagine, versus other cities that either opted out, or there’s a lottery, or they really capped the number of cultivators or retailers they’re allowing.”

In Narkewicz’s eyes, Northampton’s voters approved cannabis — first medical, then recreational — at a much higher percentage than the state average, and the city’s leaders took their cue from that.

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing,” the mayor said. “And I think we saw a pretty strong response — lots of people wanting to locate here in Northampton.”

He does hear questions from people wondering if the market is too saturated, and has a quick response. “Northampton has 17 liquor stores. I have yet to hear anyone complain that we have too many liquor stores. To me, this is a legal industry, and it’s the free market, which is why I opposed caps on liquor licenses for years, because they hold back economic development in a city like Northampton and only drive up the cost of those licenses and make it harder for entrepreneurs.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations. It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

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

Narkewicz also noted that each new business may be 20 or 25 new local jobs as well.

In Holyoke, cannabis means hundreds of new jobs in a short period of time. And the variety of jobs is appealing to us,” Hayden added, noting that someone with strong customer-service skills could become an effective patient advocate, while someone with an agricultural background could work in cultivation, and someone with a knack for science could work in extraction and infusion.

The appealing thing, he noted, is that companies are looking for workers with broad skills who just need, and want, to be trained in the intricacies of this field and their specific roles.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations,” Hayden said. “It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

Kathleen Proper, chief Human Resources officer at Canna Provisions in Holyoke, said as much at a panel discussion that preceded a recent Cannabis Career Fair at HCC, titled “Cultivating an Industry.”

“Our biggest thing is providing outstanding customer service,” she noted. “So if you’ve got experience doing customer service, whether you’ve worked retail, worked in a restaurant, waited tables, tended bar, all of those skills work out really well. Even though cannabis retail is a different animal than other retail … we tend to do really well with people who have waited tables or tended bar.”

 

Word on the Street

Yee isn’t worried about the ninth dispensary that will open in Northampton, or the 10th or 11th. Like Narkewicz, he believes the legal cannabis industry is thriving, with the saturation point well in the distance.

“I always say our biggest competitor is the black market. Many consumers are still shopping on the black market because the pricing is far better,” he said, noting that an eighth-ounce of cannabis may cost $50 in a store and $30 on the street, with no tax.

“A lot of folks who are stuck in their ways, they know the brands they like on that market, they know the cultivators they want to work with … the black market is still very, very strong,” he went on. “As we see more interesting products hit the shelves here at a commercial dispensary and prices begin to drop — and we are seeing a little more of that — we’ll see folks moving over from the black market to the commercial market. So there’s still a massive untapped customer base out there.”

Cutting agreed that, as the legal cannabis industry matures and deepens, the sheer volume of product will lower prices, and that — as well as the aesthetic and educational experience that many cannabis shops tout — will draw more people in.

“Additionally, all the product on our shelves has been tested; you know what’s in the product. On the black market, you don’t have test results and don’t know what metals or pesticides or mold or yeast are in their product. They don’t have to test — they just roll and sell their product from whatever location they’re growing in.

“Here, it’s a safe, friendly environment,” Cutting went on. “You’re not looking over your shoulder buying something off the black market. And I think that market will eventually snuff itself out. Not entirely, but I think, over time, you’ll see it. The question some will ask is, ‘hey, do I want to be safe, or roll with this and take the risk of an untested product?’ I think most people will want to be on the safe side.”

As for public safety, Narkewicz said concerns from cannabis opponents — regarding surging crime and diversion problems — simply haven’t come to pass. And looking back, he’s proud to have been the first customer in the city’s newest growth industry.

“Obviously, in the early going, we had a little traffic crunch and parking crunch, but I don’t know many mayors worried about too many people wanting to visit their city,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a good problem to have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis

Aiming High

The executive team at 6 Brick’s

The executive team at 6 Brick’s includes, from left, Taylor Shubrick, Payton Shubrick, and their parents, Dawn and Fred Shubrick.

Payton Shubrick always wanted to effect change in the world.

She never thought it would be through a product that was, for most of her life, illegal.

Specifically, when she graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 2015 with a degree in political science — and concentrations in Africana studies and peace and conflict studies — the goal was to enroll in law school, she explained.

“Our speaker for our class talked heavily about moving mountains — ‘how do you leave this college on a hill and move mountains the rest of your life?’” she recalled. “So my idea was, I was going to have this landmark case that would change the trajectory of my career and rewrite some type of law.”

But she found herself working full-time at MassMutual instead — and missing her college days filled with extracurricular activities. “It was work, work out, and go home. There was nothing in between.”

So, with the help of her father, Fred, she secured an internship with the Springfield City Council. Meetings became more interesting after Massachusetts voters approved the legalization of adult-use cannabis in late 2016, with out-of-state operators hanging around and officials trying to hash out what the rules would be for zoning and other aspects of legalization. And Shubrick was intrigued — so much that, when the councilor she was interning for lost a re-election bid, she kept attending meetings anyway.

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions. Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions,” she recalled. “Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

But as Shubrick thought about her own potential in this new industry, she had something else in mind besides dollar signs. She’d read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and gained an understanding of how the failed war on drugs had impacted urban communities like Springfield. And she saw the cannabis industry as a way to engage with that community, succeed in business there, and pay it forward.

“I went to a Springfield public high school, where, if somebody dropped a dime bag, they were going to in-house suspension or being arrested in the middle of the school day because you had police officers present in the building with you. So, when you start to peel back the layers and realize this is going to be a billion-dollar industry, how can you get people in your community to benefit from that?”

The answer is 6 Brick’s, an adult-use retail cannabis shop expected to open early in 2022 on Main Street in Springfield, in the Republican complex.

“We are what most would describe as a mom-and-pop shop, which I tend to agree with since both my parents are on the executive team,” she told BusinessWest.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

She thought her biggest hurdle would be getting her father on board. “Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much. How do you make that business case and get Dad to switch gears?”

But not only has Fred become her biggest supporter, he’s also chief procurement officer at 6 Brick’s — a name that echoes the family name, Shubrick. Payton is CEO, while her mother, Dawn, is executive secretary, and her sister, Taylor, is head of community responsibility and quality assurance. Two younger siblings — who aren’t currently old enough to work in cannabis — round out the ‘6’ in the company name.

Once she decided to wade into this burgeoning industry, Payton knew she wanted to do it in Springfield.

“There’s this idea that, to be a star, you have to leave the area and go to Boston or New York. I heard, ‘you have so much potential; go somewhere.’ That was frustrating because I’ve always seen the potential Springfield has, and this industry, in many ways, allows me to prove people wrong; I can stay here, and I can be successful in my own right, and I don’t have to move out of the city of Springfield to do that.”

“Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much.”

Furthermore, she said, “I can participate in an industry that previously caused so many people’s lives to be disrupted and negatively impacted, and I can try my hand at something I had always been interested in, which is entrepreneurship.”

It hasn’t been easy, and the journey is far from over — and the cannabis landscape in Massachusetts is still a difficult one for minority entrepreneurs, despite the state’s establishment of a social-equity program (more on that later). In a wide-ranging interview, Shubrick talked about why that’s the case, and what can be done to improve the prospects of business owners who lack the resources of large, established companies and, ultimately, create a more level playing field.

 

No Easy Road

Shubrick and her family officially launched 6 Brick’s in 2019, and the road since has been a thornier one than she had imagined.

Back in 2017, “I thought if I did my homework and put together a really strong application, I would get the license. I didn’t expect an RFP, 27 groups applying, only four being selected. That’s when your heart starts to do many palpitations — what if we don’t get picked? What happens next? I didn’t have a plan B.”

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block, which seeks opportunity for minority-owned cannabis businesses, share a few words at a recent mixer.

But she did fight through to become one of the four entities chosen in Springfield’s first round of permits.

“The running joke in the industry is they never ask when are you going to open, they say where are you in the process,” Shubrick said, noting that it’s a two-pronged process. At the city level, it involves a special permit and a host-community agreement, while the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) requires a provisional license, post-provisional-license inspections, and other steps, including a certificate of occupancy (back to the city for that), which is required by the state for the final license.

Shubrick described it all as a long sequence of queues, of getting on meeting agenda after meeting agenda. “It’s a very layered process with two entities that don’t talk to each other, and you need a series of documents from each. It’s a series of waiting rooms in some capacities.”

On top of that, 6 Brick’s has had to deal with supply-chain issues during the pandemic to get its space — now 90% built out — up and running. It even had to wait for doors that were stuck in shipping containers. “There’s not a lot in your control as you think about moving through this process. So patience is key.”

All along, a Springfield-based business was the only goal, she noted, as opposed to, say, Northampton, which never capped the number of cannabis permits.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city,” she explained. “I looked at it as, ‘I can be the hometown hero because, when I hire people, I’m going to hire them from the community, and I’m going to hire those who were impacted by cannabis prohibition.’ And that doesn’t just mean who did jail time — it could be their daughter, their niece, their nephew, because, let’s be honest, when someone is removed from the home and incarcerated, that whole family is impacted.”

In short, “for me, this was aligned to social-justice elements of my hometown and less aligned to me becoming a millionaire overnight.”

She found tht the road to being profitable at all begins with a lot of money up front — between $1 million and $2.5 million, typically, depending on the state of the building, its HVAC requirements, and other costs.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city.”

That has been a roadblock for many applicants that have gone through the state’s social-equity program aimed at creating an entrepreneurial path for communities that were particularly hard hit by the war on drugs — most of them minority-dominated communities. Today, only 8% of cannabis companies currently open in Massachusetts are run by those who emerged from the social-equity program.

“Some go through the process but have no funding at the end of the program,” Shubrick said. “So now you’re well-versed in the process and know how to get through it, and you’re looking around, and there’s no banks giving you money. If you don’t know people with deep pockets, how do you get the right investors? I’ve seen horror stories of people who have the best of intentions and got so far in the process, but you have the wrong investor, and then it becomes a nightmare. And now you’re selling for pennies, and you’ve lost time, energy, and money.

“That’s the heartbreak people don’t talk about,” she went on. “And I wouldn’t categorize it as those people failing; I would categorize it as not having have a holistic structure in place that supports people from start to finish. It’s almost a tease in order to say, ‘hey, I’m going to show you how to make a pizza, but I’m never going to give you the ingredients so you can make your own.’ Many people simply can’t raise the money to do what they’ve gone through a program to learn how to do.”

In an editorial last week, the Boston Globe agreed, noting that the state has ignored calls to create a loan program to help equity applicants, adding that, “as if the barriers to entry weren’t high enough already, getting financing for a marijuana business is difficult because of its murky legal status.”

But the Globe cites other barriers to social-equity applicants as well, particularly the power of municipalities — which are not required to consider equity when awarding licenses — over the approval process, not to mention the head start large medical-marijuana businesses have had in the recreational license-approval process, which has paved the way for bigger medical companies to dominate the market.

“So the state has to double down on its social-equity program and prioritize licensing for minority applicants,” the Globe argues.

It’s also a hyper-competitive industry in general, Shubrick said, one where players are fiercely protecting their piece of the pie, and new retailers are often offered unfair deals to partner with growers, manufacturers, and wholesalers, and vice versa.

“It’s key to have a team of lawyers and accountants help you stay away from the sharks in the water because people are so hyper-focused on trying to extract as much money as possible, they’re not thinking through long-term impacts like ‘how can I be a decent businessperson to this other individual so maybe down the line we can do business together?’ Instead, it’s ‘how can I squeeze as much equity as possible? How can I give them terms that maybe aren’t favorable because I’ll benefit in the short term?’

“Other states around us are legalizing, so the captive audience in Massachusetts won’t be the same,” she went on, “and that doesn’t bring out the best in people when they don’t view competition as healthy and an opportunity to get better.”

 

Seeking Solutions

Proponents of true social equity in cannabis are working toward a more equitable industry, however. Earlier this month, the Block — an organization that aims to support black and Latino cannabis professionals in Massachusetts — held the last of three networking mixers at White Lion Brewery in downtown Springfield. About 80 people attended, including a CCC commissioner.

In addition to efforts around business development, resources, and connections for its members, the Block is also developing options for members to gain capital, such as minority-owned investment firms, crowdsourcing, and more traditional, institutional backing.

“Plenty was discussed. It was a really good evening overall,” Shubrick said. “Social equity here in Massachusetts is well-intentioned, but logistically, it has opportunities to become more meaningful so we see more people opening doors who have gone through the program.”

She stressed that she’s fortunate to be entering this business backed by people — her family foremost — with her best interest at heart, and she’s passionate about using her business to lift up the only city she considered for this business.

“I want to hire folks from the community who can benefit from this industry, not just because they were impacted by the war on drugs, but also because Springfield should be benefiting from these jobs.”

That passion, she noted, will be shared by ‘budtenders’ who understand the plant and can educate customers on the store’s products, many of them created by local manufacturers that are also smaller companies, many owned by women, veterans, and people of color.

“We’re being intentional about our partnerships and helping customers understand why we’re partnering with them,” she said. “So it’s more of an experience and less of a transaction.”

Certainly, opening a cannabis retail shop — and, again, it’s a long process, one that’s not over yet — has been quite the experience for the Shubrick family.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote James Baldwin, a quotation Payton calls her favorite. Indeed, she’s facing the challenging realities of cannabis entrepreneurship — with a mind to change things for the better for those who come after.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis Special Coverage

Growing Concerns

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field, especially for smaller shops and social-equity applicants.

Everyone has seen the dispensaries and other cannabis businesses sprouting up in communities across Massachusetts — and the long lines of customers often stretching out the door. And they might think this business is easy money. But that’s far from the truth, thanks to an onerous tax situation, the illegal nature of the product on the federal level making it tough to enlist financial and other partners, and the slow march from stigma to acceptance of this still-new industry. All of that, however, could be changing, although it will take federal action to loosen some of those shackles.

Meg Sanders is a cannabis-industry veteran, most notably in Colorado, the nation’s first regulated market for legal cannabis. So she’s no stranger to the growing pains the industry is now dealing with in Massachusetts.

But as a local business owner — as CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee — she’s frustrated by them, too.

“We’re limited on what we can do with advertising, and the amount of product we can sell to a customer at a time,” she said, citing just two examples of regulations set forth by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry. I don’t think it’s helpful to individual businesses, and it’s definitely, in my opinion, not in the spirit of the CCC, which is supposed to promote social-equity and economic-empowerment applicants. But the bar for entry is really high, and the bar to stay out of trouble with the CCC is really high.”

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry.”

In other words, despite the number of cannabis businesses currently operating across Massachusetts — 267 and rising every week — this is a tough field to enter and a tougher one to succeed at, Sanders told BusinessWest.

“I think of people who are bootstrapping, mom-and-pop stores, teams that are working with a limited amount of cash, and it’s not a level playing field,” she went on. “And a lot of things we worry about in this industry are things that really do not matter. The amount of money this industry spends on packaging alone, that just goes in a landfill, is awful, and it’s driven by these rules and regs — it has to be childproof, it’s got to have 57 warning labels on it. I feel ethically horrible about the mounds of packaging in landfills. And the burden it puts on mom-and-pop manufacturers who are trying to make a really cool chocolate bar and the expense that’s going into that packaging … it’s really tricky.”

It doesn’t help, she added, that many state regulations can be challenging to interpret, mainly because the CCC is going through the same growing pains businesses are.

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum, but the timeline is still uncertain.

“I’ve seen this in other states — the agency tasked with regulating and monitoring the industry has a very steep learning curve,” Sanders said. “One investigator will tell you one thing, and another investigator will tell you another thing. So they’re not always on the same page for specific rules.”

Many of those regulations address diversion of product, she noted. “We’ve spent millions of dollars building this business. The last thing we’re going to do is flush it down the toilet trying to sneak a pound out the back door. It’s just absurd.”

So are onerous background checks to get into the industry, keeping out some of the individuals — from communities that have been inordinately affected by the Drug War — who should be able to enter and prosper, she added. “Regulators and business owners should be partners to build a better business and correct things that need correcting, understanding everyone is doing their best.”

Those challenges are strictly state-level, but others on the federal level are just as burdensome, and boil down to the fact that the U.S. government still classifies cannabis as an illegal controlled substance. That means most banks and credit unions have avoided doing business with cannabis operators, though that’s slowly changing.

“In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out.”

“The federal illegality is a big challenge, and it doesn’t stop with the banking issue,” said Patrick Gottschlicht, chief operating officer of Insa. “That’s been extremely detrimental to us, but that carries across to other companies that we can work with — payroll processors, ERP [enterprise resource planning] companies, any big national or international software companies, accounting firms, security vendors … they can’t work with us because of that federal illegality.”

That has started to shift as more professional services and banks are opening up to this industry, though many still won’t, and many that do are startups themselves, with less at stake, said Peter Gallagher, Insa’s CEO.

“There’s no playbook for this industry,” he added. “There’s been a lot of trial and error to get to where we are. In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out. People’s friends are getting into it, talking positively about it, and they see the success of the industry, and you’re seeing more willingness to work with cannabis.”

Some bills have been introduced in Washington to, if not legalize cannabis, at least decriminalize it.

“Those bills would make it easier for us, and also de-risk the industry around the margins for a lot of partners,” Gallagher said. “The trend is definitely there, but in what time frame will that happen? From our perspective, it’s been happening a lot faster than we ever expected. When we got into this, we thought the legal conversation would take 20 or 30 years to play out.”

 

Taking No Credit

Sanders is hopeful, too. “At the federal level, we have big challenges. We can’t even take credit cards. That’s so silly. We can take a debit card and cash, and that’s it. That alone would be a really big help.”

Scott Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson and one of the attorneys in that firm’s cannabis practice group, believes sentiment is growing that Congress will act sooner rather than later on some degree of allowing banks into the cannabis space or remove the threat of federal enforcement against entities that partner with cannabis operators.

“That will help create some stability. And the biggest thing it’ll do is allow people to use credit cards at the facilities; it’s largely cash right now. If Congress changes that law, boom — you can use your Visa card, you can use your Mastercard. And the reason that you can’t now is not because Visa and Mastercard have a particular ethical or moral problem with it — they’ve just got a legal problem.”

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Some federal bills have bipartisan support, he added, “but Congress has a lot of other things going on.” Still, with almost 40 states and territories having legalized medical cannabis and more than 20 giving the OK to adult-use cannabis, “I think the tide is definitely turning on this; it’s just a matter of how far it goes, and how quickly.”

Even without a change in the law, Foster explained, “the banking situation is getting better. We’re seeing some banks and some credit unions more willing to lend into the cannabis space now — much more than a couple years ago. They’re becoming more comfortable with lending for real-estate purposes — not for buying things, necessarily, but for buildout and for creating a space, including cultivation spaces. So that’s a change. A very small change, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal.”

The other federal law cannabis operators want to see changed is Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which severely limits tax deductions for business that deal in controlled substances prohibited by federal law. In short, businesses can deduct the cost of goods sold, but are not allowed any other deductions or credits on their return, including for wages.

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions. Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes.”

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions,” Foster said. “Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes. And this is after they pay state and local taxes. So the federal government is making a lot of tax money off of cannabis companies across the U.S.

“It’s been challenged multiple times in multiple states,” he went on, “and every tax court and every appellate court has said, ‘Congress can change it, but they were unequivocal in what they said.’ It’s a completely constitutionally valid statute.”

Decriminalizing cannabis federally would neuter the impact of 280E on the industry, which would be massive news for cannabis businesses that are already paying higher-than-average state taxes, while their host communities get a cut of between 3% and 6% as well.

But decriminalization would open many other doors as well, like broadening the market for insuring these businesses.

“There’s a risk that your insurance company could, almost at any point, say, ‘well, what you’re doing is a violation of federal law; therefore, we’re not going to insure you,’” Foster said. “The companies are getting insurance — they’re required to get insurance by the CCC — but they’re not the traditional companies; they’re not the Allstates or the companies you see advertising. They’re smaller, specialty, boutique insurance companies that have figured out it’s worth the risk to them to get into that space because the premiums are appreciably higher than they would be for a comparable business.”

So, again, the lack of federal legislation to decriminalize cannabis is increasing the cost of doing business, he went on. “If that happened, I think the cost of insurance would go down because you’d have more competition overnight in the space.”

Another barrier to continued growth that is slowly coming down is stigma surrounding the products themselves.

“For decades, it was drilled into people’s heads that this was a bad thing,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take time to change that, and the most powerful tool is social proof and people seeing their friends and relatives using it to either treat various ailments or enhance their lifestyle; they see they’re successful, healthy individuals, and this is just a way to improve their lives. But I think it’s going to take time.”

For example, Gottschlicht added, “we have a bedtime edible to help you sleep, and we’ve seen people who were non-cannabis users start using that and come into the space because of that. It’s incredible how many people have gotten off standard pharmaceuticals and gone to half a gummy every night. The feedback has been, ‘it doesn’t make me groggy; it doesn’t give me the melatonin hangover I’ve gotten in the past. I feel normal in the morning, and it helps me sleep through the night.’”

Hearing those testimonies from friends and family is often how the stigma barrier falls for people who have been nervous about stopping by, he noted. “They think, ‘hey, there’s some good benefit to this.’ Or as an alternative to opioids after surgery — we’ve had a lot of people come in who just don’t want to take opioids for pain after surgery; they want to try cannabis because it’s not as addictive as some of the opioids out there.”

Sanders agreed. “I personally think the biggest move you can make to convert non-cannabis users to cannabis is this one-on-one experience, people telling people, or people coming in and finding relief from something — maybe sleep issues or aches and pains. And when you convert one person, they tell someone, and then they tell someone.”

 

Business Is Blooming

It’s been fulfilling to see the industry grow, Foster said — not to mention a boost to his own professional practice.

“The big uncertainty now is what consolidation in this industry is going to look like, and when is it going to happen. Everyone knows big players are going to come in and buy up companies and create brands that stretch across the nation; it’s already occurring, though not a lot … yet.”

But as more investors become comfortable with industry — there’s that idea of breaking through stigma again — that consolidation will happen, he went on. Drawing on the beer industry, he noted there’s no Anheuser-Busch in cannabis yet — it’s all microbreweries, so to speak. But even when large, national companies spread across the space, there will always be room for the boutique experience, for small companies that continue to research and promote the effects of new and different strains.

Research that is not currently happening to the degree it could because much research, especially clinical research at universities, is dependent on … wait for it … federal funding.

But once that research takes off and the cannabis industry escapes the shackles of federal illegality — a development that industry players generally agree will happen at some point — the products will continue to become more legitimized in the public eye, and the potential customer base will expand.

“People are asking, is the industry tapped out? No, I’m not seeing that,” Foster said. “Every business that opens up has a line out the door, and every facility that opens up can sell everything it makes. So, we have not reached a point of saturation by any means.”

That ever-expanding competition is another challenge, Sanders said, but one that should benefit all players because it further legitimizes the products in more people’s minds. But it also means individual businesses need to work harder to stand out. Canna does that with a strong focus on the individual experience and locally sourced products — including its own brand, Smash — with interesting, local stories behind them.

“There’s more good people than not in this space, and we owe it to consumers who are cannabis-curious to put our best foot forward and make sure they have as much information about our products as possible, so they don’t have any unexpected reactions,” she said. “Our commitment is to great products we can tell a story about, that we understand and respect and can get behind and provide the best experience we can possibly provide, and educate our customers.”

Insa, which has a production facility in Easthampton and four dispensaries across the region, including a flagship store in Springfield, has also expanded nationally, with a production facility in Pennsylvania selling to about 100 dispensaries and a Florida license to build a production site and medical dispensaries. And Gallagher embraces the growing competition in all those regions.

“The way we look at it, this is a much bigger industry than exists today,” he said. “If we all do a good job and operate responsibly and create good quality products, it will encourage more people to enter the industry and experiment and try it, and this will get much, much bigger. A rising tide lifts all boats, and as long as you have good, responsible players in the market, it’s going to be a benefit to everyone.”

Still, he added, “it’s a tough business. One of the common misperceptions is, people think it’s going to be easy. But it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. You have to be on it every day. And when you’re dealing with any biological product, the number of variables to control are immense. So it’s extremely challenging.

“But it’s been great,” he added. “The relationships we’ve built along the way have been fantastic. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Except, of course, for some pesky federal laws.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis

A Front-row Seat

Bruce Stebbins remembers the time during his tenure on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission when that body was essentially subleasing some of its space on Federal Street in Boston to the recently formed Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), charged with overseeing an industry then — and in most all ways still — in its infancy.

While the two entities had separate quarters, the commissions and their staffs would cross paths often, he said, adding that there were lively discussions and some sharing of ideas between the two very different worlds.

“I was regularly running into my counterparts on their commission and staff while waiting for the elevator,” he recalled. “We actually had a lot of staff from our team having a lot of conversations with staff from their team, in part out of convenience — they were on the same floor. There was a lot of information going back and forth on the staff level … and it was the introduction of that new industry that was really exciting for me.”

Little could he have known at that time, but Stebbins, a former Western Mass. resident known to many in this region for his work with a host of economic-development-related agencies, would soon be on the front lines of that new industry.

Bruce Stebbins

Bruce Stebbins

“We have 267 cannabis establishments open in Massachusetts, most of them on the retail side. Unlike gaming, which had a limited number of licenses, there are no limits on the number of cannabis licenses; it’s an interesting structure because there’s been an effort to create opportunities for a local entrepreneur as well as larger operators who have significant experience in other states.”

Indeed, he would eventually trade his seat on the gaming board for one on the Cannabis Control Commission. And that puts him in a unique position.

Indeed, he’s able to talk firsthand (as no one else can, because no one else has sat on both commissions) about these two huge additions to the state’s landscape — and its business community. And he did just that in a lengthy interview with BusinessWest, during which he did a little comparing and contrasting of the two industries. But mostly he talked about his latest assignment, how it came about, and what he projects for a cannabis industry that is already having a profound impact on the state — nearly $2 billion in sales since the first retail establishments opened in 2018 — and, especially, individual cities and towns.

He said the industries are similar in that they are bringing millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state and adding thousands of jobs as well, but also different in some ways. There are only three casinos, obviously, while there are now nearly 300 cannabis-related operations doing business in the state. The casinos are owned and operated by huge international corporations, while the cannabis ventures come in all sizes, from huge, multi-state operations to smaller entrepreneurial enterprises.

And while the resort casinos have changed the landscape in Springfield, Everett, and Plainfield, the cannabis industry is reshaping dozens of smaller communities and bringing new life to idle real estate across the state (more on that later).

Named to the board in January, Stebbins said he’s still learning about the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, and there is much to learn.

His education involves venturing out and seeing various operations in person, he said, and also listening to a large and intriguing mix of activists, stakeholders, physicians, parents, and those who have been in the industry, including some who have come to Massachusetts from other states that had legalized cannabis earlier, such as Colorado and Washington.

Overall, while it’s difficult to say how large and impactful the cannabis industry can become in the Bay State, he said there are essentially “no limits” on either the number of licenses or the bearing of this sector on the economy or individual cities and towns.

“We have 267 cannabis establishments open in Massachusetts, most of them on the retail side,” he noted. “Unlike gaming, which had a limited number of licenses, there are no limits on the number of cannabis licenses; it’s an interesting structure because there’s been an effort to create opportunities for a local entrepreneur as well as larger operators who have significant experience in other states.”

For this issue and its focus on the cannabis industry, BusinessWest talked with Stebbins about what he can see from his front-row seat, what he’s learning, and what he projects for an industry that is off to a fast start and shows no signs of slowing down.

 

On a Roll

When asked about how he wound up trading his seat on one commission for the other, Stebbins started by talking about the positions that became available on the CCC and his decision to apply for one of them.

Key to that decision is the why. As with the Gaming Commission, he was drawn to this board — and the cannabis industry — because of its broad implications for economic development within the Commonwealth.

“Part of my passion has been fueled by the opportunity to work with this new industry coming into Massachusetts,” he noted. “Similar to my interest in the gaming work that I did, I was looking for the economic-development aspects of this [cannabis] industry, whether it’s investment, jobs, small-business opportunity … I certainly saw that both gaming and the introduction of the cannabis industry was going to offer those opportunities. That’s where my passion lay with gaming, and it’s where it lies with cannabis as well.”

Surveying the scene in the Commonwealth, he said cannabis has come a long way in a short time in Massachusetts.

“I was impressed with the work of the commission and the staff … from the time the ballot question passed to the statute to opening the first retail, it was about two years; that’s very aggressive,” he said, adding that the industry is still ascending, with no real indication of just how high it can go.

“Right now, a big part of the agenda of our meetings is looking at renewals, final licenses for applicants, and also a healthy number of provisional-license applications that are coming through the door,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a slowing down of activity when it comes to people pursuing a license and people taking the final steps to opening their doors.”

Elaborating, he said there are a number of ways to measure the impact of this industry, with the number of licenses and the volume of sales being only a few of them.

Others include the positive impact on the real-estate market, with cannabis operations bringing a number of idle or underutilized properties — from retail storefronts to former paper and textile mills — back to productive life, with the promise of more at venues that include the massive former JCPenney property at the Eastfield Mall.

“Being from Western Mass., being from Springfield, and knowing Holyoke, I think one of the obvious returns has been investment in brick and mortar, whether it’s been an old mill building as a cultivation-and-grow facility to some of the new retail facilities that you see popping up,” Stebbins said. “There have been many healthy examples of how this has led to increased investment in communities that might have been struggling with underutilized properties that weren’t helping out the tax rolls.”

He cited examples of such dynamic reuse in Holyoke, Sturbridge, Southbridge, and several other communities, while noting that behind each of those walls are jobs that didn’t exist three years ago.

One of the industry’s best qualities, he went on, is the opportunities it offers to different constituencies, when it comes to both jobs and entrepreneurship — within the industry and supporting it as well.

“The cannabis statute obviously wanted to a heavy emphasis on hiring those who were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” he explained. “We are in the middle of our application phase for our social-equity program, which gives individuals from those neighborhoods an opportunity to explore being an entrepreneur in this industry, looking at a management track, looking at an entry-level job track, as well as ancillary business; maybe you don’t want to actually be a cannabis retailer, but you might be an electrician, and what job opportunities and business opportunities are out there because of this industry?”

Stebbins acknowledged there are certainly some barriers to entering this industry, especially when it comes to capital and access to it, and he lauded the CCC and the Legislature for efforts to create loan funds — some of them from revenues generated by the industry — and other programs to ease access and remove some of those barriers.

“Some great work has been done, and we’re not taking our eye off the focus of making sure those opportunities are available for social-equity applicants,” he said.

These qualities separate the cannabis industry from gaming in some respects, he went on, adding that, while both have created jobs, the cannabis sector has created more opportunities in more regions and in more cities and towns — and also more types of opportunities.

“Cannabis has created a wide variety of jobs — testing jobs, cultivation jobs, retail jobs, product-manufacturing jobs,” he said. “And there’s also the fact that the industry has the ability to take root across the Commonwealth and not just in specific regions or specific, identified communities.”

 

Joint Ventures

Reflecting on the past several years, Stebbins said he’s had a remarkable opportunity — one that has placed him on the front lines in the development and maturation of not just one new industry within the Commonwealth, but two of them.

It’s been a rewarding experience — and a learning experience — on many levels, he said, adding quickly that he has a great deal of energy and passion when it comes to finding solutions and helping new businesses grow, reach their full potential, and be successful.

That’s true of both sectors, but especially his latest assignment — a cannabis sector that has certainly taken root, both literally and figuratively, but will inevitably suffer growing pains. u

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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