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At the Goal Line

With 35 other states having done so already, Massachusetts lawmakers were eager to pass a bill this summer legalizing sports betting, and Gov. Charlie Baker followed suit, signing it into law. Now comes the hard work by the Gaming Commission to establish a framework and scores of regulations — and the continuing research into a recreational activity that brings a still-uncertain level of economic benefit, alongside some well-established social risks.

The MGM Sports Lounge

The MGM Sports Lounge was designed to enhance the sports viewing — and eventually gambling — experience.

Rachel Volberg has been researching the effects of gambling for almost four decades, and since 2013, she’s been doing it at the behest of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), which selected her team a decade ago to research the potential impacts of casinos.

“We’ve kept a pretty careful eye on things, but only a few U.S. states have any funding in their legislation to conduct research, so we know surprisingly little about the social and economic impacts of betting in the United States as a whole,” she told BusinessWest, and that’s even more true when it comes to legalized sports betting, which Massachusetts recently became the 36th state to legalize.

A research professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, for the past decade Volberg has been the principal investigator with Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA), whose latest report — the first of its kind in the nation — deals with the potential impact of legal sports gambling in the Bay State. And if the picture is still uncertain, it’s coming into focus.

“I think the biggest surprise for us was how little research had actually been done, particularly on the economic impacts — what does the industry look like once you legalize it, once it’s operational? What kinds of jobs, what kinds of revenues, and how are those jobs translating into economic benefits? There were literally only two or three economic studies we were able to identify, so there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in that area.”

What is emerging may not thrill proponents of sports gambling who support legalization on economic grounds. The study contends that direct economic impacts will depend on shifting spending from the illegal to legal market, and the impacts will not be entirely new since the majority of these already occur due to the illegal market. In addition, sports betting will primarily redistribute money already in the economy rather than attracting new money from outside Massachusetts.

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now. The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

“When you compare the tax revenue we anticipate being generated in Massachusetts by sports betting, the optimistic scenario is $60 million a year,” Volberg said, “which is not very large compared to the lottery, which in 2019 generated $1.1 billion in tax revenue, or casinos, which in 2019 generated about $168 million.”

That’s not nothing, of course, and state lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the bill to bring sports gambling out into the open, as did Gov. Charlie Baker, who signed the bill into law shortly after. It was the culmination of momentum that had been building since sports betting was legalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018. Area legislators pointed out that, with every state in the Northeast having followed suit, Massachusetts was losing money to its neighbors.

“Legalizing sports wagering in Massachusetts will allow us to finally compete with neighboring states and will bring in new revenue and immense economic benefits,” state Sen. John Velis said in August.

The bill allows for 15 online licenses for companies like DraftKings and FanDuel, in addition to five retail licenses for the three casinos and two racetracks in Massachusetts. The bill also creates a commission to study additional licenses for smaller businesses, such as bars and restaurants.

The bill includes out-of-state collegiate betting but does not allow bets on Massachusetts college teams unless they are in the playoffs. The bill also includes a 20% tax on mobile bets and a 15% tax on retail bets, which would be paid by the operating company.

Rachel Volberg

Rachel Volberg

“At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now,” said Chris Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, which built two sports viewing lounges last year partly in anticipation of legal sports betting (more on those later). “The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

 

Devil’s in the Details

With the legislation now law, the MGC will work out the details that will make legal sports betting a reality. It has already come up with a list of about 225 regulations that will need to be drafted.

“A great deal of work has already been done by our team in anticipation of sports wagering becoming legal in Massachusetts,” Gaming Commission Executive Director Karen Wells said last month. “This includes identifying over 200 potential regulations, adopting a framework to utilize industry-recognized technical standards, establishing an infrastructure to investigate and license applicants, initiating the hiring of a chief of Sports Wagering, and scheduling public meetings. Now that we have a law that defines our responsibilities as regulator, we will work with our stakeholders to swiftly stand up this new industry with a focus on integrity, player safety, and consumer protection.”

They’ll take a hard look at SEIGMA’s report in crafting that framework and its many elements, Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said, noting that “this report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Volberg added that “we were trying to give a very broad overview of what is known at this point about the social and economic impact of sports betting, and it’s the first nationwide effort to do that. It also summarizes what we know about sports betting in Massachusetts.”

She told BusinessWest that the ‘handle’ — a term that refers to all money bet, including rewagered winnings, creating a high level of churn — is not the same as the total revenue taken in by operators.

“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sports betting is run on very narrow margins, so the actual revenues the operator is able to generate are a very small number of what the handle numbers are,” she explained. “At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

Because so little information about the impacts of sports betting is available, Volberg’s team mined data from their own surveys and studies that are part of the research ordered by the Massachusetts Legislature when lawmakers passed the Expanded Gaming Act in 2011. Meanwhile, a representative survey of 8,000 adults was completed in Massachusetts earlier this year and provides a snapshot of changes in gambling behavior, attitude, and problem-gambling prevalence since 2013-14.

“The National Council on Problem Gambling has seen a significant increase in sports-betting participation since 2018,” she told BusinessWest, noting that it has also reported an increase in people saying they had experiences with one or more impacts or harms.

“That suggests that an increase in sports betting has the potential to come with increased harm, which is not a surprise, but in Massachusetts, because the Gaming Commission already has familiarity with implementing measures to try to minimize and mitigate harm — because they already have that experience with casinos — we’re hopeful those harms can in fact be minimized,” Volberg added.

Cathy Judd-Stein

Cathy Judd-Stein

“This report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Alisha Khoury-Boucher, a clinical supervisor at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, agreed to an extent. “Gambling has been a concern for a long time, but we already have a casino close by, so we don’t see a major change with the people we serve from legalizing sports gambling; if they wanted to do those things, they were already doing those things. It’s the behavior more than the access.”

Still, she added, “in my opinion, where we may see more of a problem is with young people, college-age people, who may still be home with mom and dad and have more disposable income. We might see an increase there, but that’s to be determined.”

“Any time a new entertainment is starting up, it’s always going to be advertised toward young people,” Khoury-Boucher said, citing vaping as one example. “They weren’t looking for middle-aged people who’d been smoking for 25 years; they were looking at mid- to late adolescents. It’s kind of the same thing with sports gambling. If you’re a sports fan, you’re seeing advertising that looks like the old beer commercials — everyone’s happy, it’s exciting, it’s flashy. They’re targeting young people, and that’s potentially a problem.”

Indeed, SEIGMA’s study notes that sports betting occurs in all demographic groups but appeals most to young, well-educated men. It adds that problem gambling is higher among sports bettors primarily because they tend to be involved with a large number of other gambling activities, so legalizing sports betting in Massachusetts has the potential to increase rates of gambling harm and problem gambling.

To mitigate those concerns, SEIGMA is advising the Gaming Commission to require operators to provide player data to the MGC on a regular basis and to cooperate with researchers; to prohibit live, in-game sports betting, which is disproportionately utilized by problem gamblers; and to restrict advertising and celebrity endorsements, which tend to promote sports betting in young people, precipitate relapse in recovered gamblers, and counteract the effectiveness of messages advocating limited, lower-risk involvement.

Volberg noted that only four states have funded any kind of research about sports betting, while 12 have provided funding for problem-gambling services. This contrasts with Massachusetts, where 9% of the tax revenue raised from sports betting will go into the Public Health Trust Fund that supports research and services to mitigate gambling-related harms.

“We are in a unique position in Massachusetts to be able to monitor the impacts of sports betting as it becomes legal and make adjustments to its provision so as to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms.”

 

Sit Back and Watch

Those benefits, as noted, are uncertain, but operators are excited about the prospects.

For maximum economic impact, SEIGMA’s report recommends issuing licenses for online operators, and a variety of them, since most sports betting is done online. That lines up with the Gaming Commission’s plans.

“While it is likely that sports-book operators, including land-based and online operators, will benefit from sports-betting legalization in Massachusetts,” the study notes, “it is difficult to predict whether sports bettors will add legal sports betting to their repertoire or simply substitute betting on sports for spending on other types of gambling.”

Still, as the leader of the only casino in Western Mass., Kelley sees potential benefits not just for his facility, but for the region itself.

“Massachusetts residents are already driving across the border to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York to place bets. Keeping the millions of tax dollars generated annually by sports wagering in the Commonwealth is a big deal,” he told BusinessWest. In addition, “sports betting at MGM Springfield will bring more foot traffic and visitors to downtown Springfield. We are thrilled at the prospect of not only having more people come and enjoy our property, but to experience all of the amazing businesses nearby.”

To enhance the viewing and gambling experience, the MGM Sports Lounge opened in August 2021, featuring more than 70 lounge seats and a 45-foot state-of-the-art HD viewing wall, inviting fans to watch multiple sporting events at once. A new VIP Sports Lounge also opened last August within TAP Sports Bar, offering a more intimate experience, including a state-of-the-art HD viewing wall.

“As a New England sports fan, I can tell you the MGM Springfield Sports Lounge is the best spot to watch the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins, you name it,” Kelley said. “It’s also just a great place to gather with your friends for a fun night out. As soon as we get the green light, we are ready to incorporate the BetMGM platform into our property.”

Yes, the green light — it’s what many in the gaming industry in Massachusetts have been anticipating for a long time, hoping the benefits of legal sports betting exceed early projections — and outweigh the potential harms.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Features

High Stakes

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

It’s been an eventful six years since voters first approved marijuana sales to treat medical conditions back in 2012. From that vote sprang New England Treatment Access (NETA) three years ago, and last month, the dispensary became one of just two stores in Massachusetts selling cannabis products for adult recreational use as well. NETA’s co-founder says the company has proven itself to be a good neighbor and an economic driver — and promises to be even more so in what is certainly a bold new era for marijuana in the Bay State.

When Kevin Fisher came to Massachusetts to help launch a medical-marijuana dispensary, he was already a veteran of the industry in Colorado, with plenty of passion to boot.

Fisher’s family, like so many others, has been struck by cancer, he said, and the idea — first as owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado and then, starting in 2015, as co-founder of New England Treatment Access (NETA) — was always to draw in people with chronic and even terminal illness who may consider cannabis a viable therapy.

By the time NETA opened its doors in Northampton and Brookline, the anecdotal evidence for the drug’s effectiveness had been well-established elsewhere, he noted.

“We knew patients were using these therapies for a broad range of conditions,” Fisher told BusinessWest, before praising the law crafted after voters approved legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“In Massachusetts, they got it right. Instead of legislators playing physician, the law granted physicians the freedom to make recommendations as they saw fit. It was important to maintain the sanctity of that patient-physician relationship. And we wanted to make sure we would provide quality products for patients to meet that broad range of conversations with physicians.”

Now, another law has significantly altered NETA’s business model. On Nov. 20, the company’s Northampton site, as well as Cultivate Holdings, LLC in Leicester, became the first facilities in the Northeast to sell marijuana to the public for adult recreational use.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘customer service associates.’ We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

At a press event after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission gave the go-ahead, Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, said the shop is “beyond thrilled to be a part of this historic moment when NETA Northampton finally gets to open its doors to adults over 21 to provide safe, legal, and regulated cannabis to the people of Massachusetts.”

It’s certainly a welcome shift for many in the Valley, but it comes with challenges — concerning consumer safety, public perceptions, even traffic on Conz Street, which backed up significantly at certain times in the days following Nov. 20. But Fisher said NETA has long been preparing to meet them.

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates, with some of the ‘flower’ available for purchase.

Early on, for example, the organization brought in Leslie Laurie, former head of Tapestry Health and a long-time expert in public health in Western Mass., as its regional director. “She had expertise we could benefit from, a perspective on patients’ needs in Western Mass.,” Fisher said.

The founders also assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that the progressive culture in Northampton would prove welcoming to a dispensary that first sold cannabis products to a patients with prescriptions, and, now, to any adult with an ID.

“We felt [Northampton] was the place to go, and the process was pretty smooth,” he added. “I’m thankful for Leslie; she brought a credibility to our organization and the relationships we built with government and law enforcement. And we’ve only continued to build those relationships during the adult-use licensing, because they could appreciate the solid community partners we have been.”

Opening a medical-marijuana dispensary in Brookline, however, was a “whole different beast,” Fisher noted. “There were about 100 meetings required — some open to the media and the public, many with public officials … just meeting after meeting, a lot of hand-holding and reassurance. It was a very rigorous process.”

Despite that tougher road than the Northampton one, NETA felt affirmed when its license with Brookline came up for renewal after the first year. “The town said we didn’t even need to show up for the hearing; it was guaranteed. It made us feel like we had operated in the way we had promised.”

By contrast, Northampton was always a smoother fit, and is currently the only NETA site approved for recreational sales, as the licensing process continues in Brookline.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use,” Fisher said of the Paradise City, adding that NETA has never taken that goodwill for granted. “We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

Time will tell if issues arise, of course, but for now, Fisher is pleased with the business — customers are still waiting in line most days — and NETA’s continued growth as what he calls a true community partner.

The Ayes Have It

In 2016, four years after the similar vote on medical marijuana, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational sales to adults age 21 years and older. If they present a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license, ID card, or passport) for verification, customers may purchase up to 1 ounce of ‘flower’ or 5 grams of concentrate. Certain potency restrictions, including a 5 mg serving-size limit for ‘edibles,’ apply to non-medical products.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use. We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

However, Fisher was quick to note that, with the introduction of recreational sales, NETA’s medical-marijuana patients will remain the shop’s priority. Patients with prescriptions have their own lines, and at least 35% of each day’s inventory is reserved for patients. In short, the customer experience has not changed for people seeking to fill scripts.

As for those waiting in line for recreational sales, Fisher said it typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to get through, but technology is available to shorten the wait NETA uses a reserve-ahead app to view the daily menu, reserve an order online, and have it ready for pickup at a certain time later that day. In addition, for people looking to gauge the wait at any given time, NETA offers continuous live wait-time updates on its website.

It has also doubled customer service staff and remodeled the stores to offer nearly twice as many service stations.

Also ramped up are efforts to educate customers about cannabis products — a key factor, considering that many users are likely to be inexperienced.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘patient service associates,’” Fisher said, noting that he prefers that over the flip industry term ‘budtenders.’ “We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

That training — about two months worth — includes everything from understanding the core components of cannabis products to encouraging new users to ‘start low and go slow.’

“That’s a message we drive home again and again to our PSAs and our customers. There will always be more cannabis. So find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and start easy so you don’t have negative outcomes.”

In addition to the ‘low and slow’ guidance, NETA’s consumer-education materials emphasize elements like a ‘what product is right for me’ guide; advice against driving or using heavy machinery under the influence, public consumption, and traveling across state lines; a potency and tolerance tutorial, safe storage; and recognizing substance-abuse signs and identifying resources for additional help.

Recognizing that some of the opposition to legalized marijuana came from individuals concerned about products getting into children’s hands, all NETA product packaging is child-resistant and labeled with revised warnings and clear information to ensure that people can identify edible products as marijuana-infused and not safe for children.

In addition to training staff to emphasize responsible consumption when interacting with consumers, NETA has retained a full-time training coordinator to continuously develop and manage retail-staff training.

Understanding dosage levels is is important, Fisher said, as are reminders that the effects differ between smoking marijuana and ingesting edibles. In the latter case, “you could see a delayed onset, so don’t eat that whole bag if you don’t feel it’s working. That sounds like simple advice, but it’s a big deal for us.”

As it is for the Cannabis Control Commission, which encourages prospective customers to know the law and consume responsibly.

“This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state,” Chairman Steven Hoffman said last month. “To get  here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections, and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets  up and running. As patrons look forward to visiting Massachusetts stores, we hope they will do their part by first familiarizing themselves with the law and understanding what is required of responsible consumers.”

Growing Concerns

Beyond Northampton and Brookline, Fisher said, NETA’s cultivation facility in Franklin — which has nearly doubled its capacity in anticipation of adult use — continues to invest heavily in research and is developing a pipeline of products designed to improve customers’ experiences and address specific medical conditions and symptoms.

And, make no mistake, even though adults can buy cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription, he added, it still makes sense to receive and renew certification as a patient — not just because of the lessened wait to be served, but because patients also avoid the 20% tax on adult-use sales, and can access a yearly voucher program to help offset the cost of being certified.

He’s also excited about the potential in Massachusetts, considering the scientific and medical resources available locally, to continue researching the benefits of marijuana from a medical perspective. “Clearly, we’re going to get more research; we have some of the brightest minds in the world of healthcare here in Western Mass.”

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

Overall, Fisher is a believer in the benefits of this industry, in terms of healthcare, quality of life, and economic benefits, like taxes paid and workers hired. The company employs close to 600 people, more than 100 in Western Mass. alone.

“Billions of dollars are spent yearly in this country [on marijuana], so by regulating it, there’s economic impact that can be realized, taxes to be paid, safety measures put in place … you’re not in someone’s car in an alley.”

And for adults who have no particular health condition but simply want to partake as an escape from life’s stresses, well, he believes there are far worse alternatives for that.

“That’s not to encourage broader consumption of cannabis, but let’s normalize it so parents can talk to their kids about it,” he told BusinessWest. “In Colorado, where it’s a mature industry, the youth rates have gone down. It’s just less cool for kids. There’s more open dialogue. Parents are having more discussions about it.”

And, he was quick to add, that guy selling pot on the corner, in states where it remains illegal, doesn’t check an ID like a responsible dispensary does.

“We’re bringing it from the darkness into the light and realizing a lot of positive outcomes,” he said. “On balance, this is a good thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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