Would-be Berkshire provider of medicinal marijuana unfazed by legalization push


PITTSFIELD — A nonprofit group seeking state licenses for up to three medical marijuana facilities in the Berkshires is unconcerned that the proposed legalization of the drug might render such operations financially unsustainable.

If recreational marijuana is legalized through an initiative on the 2016 state ballot, it shouldn't negatively impact her group's plans, according to Julia Germaine, a principal in Manna Wellness Inc.

In fact, she said, a section in the initiative gives an advantage to groups that have been involved in the lengthy state Department of Public Health licensing process for medical marijuana. Use of the drug for that purpose was legalized through a referendum on the 2012 state ballot, but only a handful of nonprofits have yet been fully licensed to sell medicinal marijuana.

Two weeks ago, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, cleared a major voter signature hurdle to place a referendum on the November 2016 ballot. The campaign submitted 70,739 certified voter signatures to the Secretary of State's Office, well above the required 64,750.

The Legislature now has an opportunity to act on the issue, but if lawmakers fail to adopt the proposal by summer, the campaign could then place the initiative on the state ballot by submitting another 10,792 signatures.

Germaine, director of resources for Manna Wellness, said this week that she favored the current ballot initiative over a similar one that failed to clear the petition signature requirement. She said that's because it is similar to the legalization process used and now vetted in Colorado, and it regulates and taxes recreational marijuana like alcohol.

"I think it will be a healthy market, in any case," she said, but legalizing recreational marijuana will create additional business opportunities around the state, including for those groups already involved in the medical marijuana business.

"Actually, there will be an advantage for established medical marijuana facilities," Germaine said, both in terms of expediting the new licensing process and because both forms of marijuana could be offered for sale in the same facility under two separate licenses.

Groups with experience in the business, including the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana and the regulatory process, should be able to move more quickly to obtain a license to sell recreational marijuana, she said, and the ballot initiative provides a head start in the application process. It states in part that "the commission shall issue licenses first to qualified applicants who submitted applications for registrations to operate medical marijuana treatment centers to the department of public health by Oct. 1, 2015, and then by lottery among qualified applicants."

The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, as the initiative is known, would, according to a summary version, allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow a limited number of marijuana plants in their homes, similar to home-brewing; create a tightly regulated system of licensed marijuana retail outlets, cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, and testing facilities, which will be overseen by a commission similar to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission; provide local governments with the authority to regulate and limit the number of marijuana establishments in their city or town; and create a 3.75 percent state excise tax on retail marijuana sales (in addition to the standard state sales tax), and allow local governments to establish an additional local sales tax of up to 2 percent.

Medical marijuana will not be subject to these additional taxes.

Manna Wellness currently is in the second phase of the state DPH's three-phase license application process for medical marijuana. Germaine said the nonprofit expects to hear this month whether it can proceed to the final application phase — involving site selection and obtaining local zoning and other approvals.

Manna Wellness has designated one potential site in Pittsfield — on Callahan Drive off West Housatonic Street — for a medical marijuana cultivation and retail facility, and two other sites, as yet unnamed, are under consideration and would be identified if the nonprofit enters the next licensing phase, Germaine said.

The nonprofit was among several invited in August to enter the second licensing phase, requiring more information on the management team and operational plans.

Heka Health Inc., which proposes medical marijuana dispensaries on Dalton Avenue in Pittsfield and Housatonic Street in Lee and a cultivation facility in Westfield, was invited by the DPH in October to submit further management information as part of the second application phase.

The state DPH provides a status report on its website on all pending medical marijuana licensing applications.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.

A link to the full text of the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act can be found at www.regulatemassachusetts.org/about/initiative-text/


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