Retail pot might be in short supply until summer's end - and possibly beyond

With just over two weeks remaining until the target date to launch retail sales of marijuana in Massachusetts, the Cannabis Control Commission has yet to issue its first license. The earliest the commission would consider issuing one is Tuesday, the commission's chairman said Thursday.

For months, officials have been working under a July 1 target date to launch retail sales of marijuana, but that goal appears close to going up in smoke.

With just over two weeks remaining, the Cannabis Control Commission has yet to issue its first license to sell marijuana for recreational use. The earliest the commission would consider issuing one is Tuesday, the commission's chairman said Thursday.

"I'm not going to offer forecasts, other than we're working as hard as we can and we're determined to do this right. But we have, from day one, said July 1 is not a legislative mandate," Chairman Steven Hoffman said. "It is our objective, and we're going to try to meet that objective, but we're going to do it right, and that continues to be the way we're operating at the commission."

Hoffman's comments came at a meeting of the commission, which is the licensing authority for recreational marijuana sales. The next meeting of the commission is Tuesday.

In November 2016, state voters approved a ballot initiative that legalized adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Across the Berkshires and the state, would-be marijuana sellers, growers and manufacturers have been racing for approvals to tap into the fledgling market.

At a meeting of the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving on Wednesday, Cannabis Control Commission Executive Director Shawn Collins also hedged on the July 1 launch date.

"We're working as diligently as we possibly can to get recreational marijuana to consumers as soon as we are able," Collins said. "We're being as thorough as possible, but it's hard to promise or I can't tell at this point."

Industry insiders say that, due to the licensing process and a lack of recreational marijuana being cultivated, it might take until the end of the summer for just a handful of stores across the state to start selling recreational marijuana.

In fact, marijuana might be in short supply until summer 2019, said Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council. That's when recreational cultivator crops will be ready for harvest and the state will have been issuing licenses for a complete year.

"The whole retail thing isn't going to shake out for a year and a half at least. I'm telling people who feel like they're getting into it too late, 'It's OK, you don't want to open before spring, because there's not going to be much for you to buy,'" said Bernard, who also predicted that recreational marijuana prices would be high until more recreational cultivators get their licenses and pull in a first harvest.

"By the leaf-peeping season in 2019," he said, "there's going to be some really good supply, and outside tourists are going to be doing a little more than peeping out there."

First in line

The most likely scenario, Bernard said, is the already-established medical marijuana dispensaries seeking recreational licenses will be the first shops selling pot to people age 21 and older. They are well-positioned to be the first shops to enter the new recreational business because they already have buildings, relationships with their communities, an established supply of legal marijuana, employees and financial systems in place.

Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, which last year became the first medical marijuana dispensary to open in the Berkshires, is applying for a recreational license for its Stockbridge Road location.

CEO Brandon Pollock said he hopes to have its license in hand this summer.

"We're not going to be open on July 1," Pollock said of the recreational side of his business. Medicinal marijuana will continue to be available at the store.

"Most likely, it will be sometime in August. I have no idea how quick they're processing applications. We haven't been approved so far."

Pollock said that working with the state has been a slow process, but he understands the reasoning behind the pace.

"It's a new process that we're all learning," he said.

So far, the Cannabis Control Commission has received 53 recreational marijuana applications across the six license types: cultivator (18), microbusiness (two), product manufacturer (12), research facility (three), retail (17) and transporter (one), Collins said Thursday.

As of Monday, there were 51 applications, and only one full application had been submitted to the commission from Berkshire County. In Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, nine applications had been filed. It is not clear from which counties the two new applications Collins reported were filed.

Unlike the medical marijuana licensing process, the state will not be making available who has applied for recreational retail cultivation or processing licenses and will not provide public updates on the status of specific applications, according to a commission spokesman. But Collins said the applications have come in from 36 registered marijuana dispensary (RMD) companies, four applicants who are part of the commission's economic empowerment program and 13 applicants who did not receive priority review status from the commission.

An additional 75 applicants have submitted at least one of four sections of the license application to the commission, Collins said, though the commission waits until it has received all four parts of the application to begin reviewing the request.

Without any complications or extensions, a successful applicant could be waiting up to three months for a license. The Cannabis Control Commission only began accepting nonpriority applications May 1.

Once completed, a recreational license application is submitted to the Cannabis Control Commission, which then has 90 days to review it and make a decision. The commission also sends a notice to an applicant's host community, verifying the host agreement and its components.

The municipality has 60 days to respond. If it does not, or responds in support of the business before the deadline, the license is issued. If the community responds by challenging an aspect of the application, that has to be addressed.

Bernard said medicinal marijuana dispensaries will likely dominate the recreational marijuana market for a year while recreational-only shops obtain licenses and establish a sustainable supply of cannabis.

"This time next year, early spring/summer, you'll start to see a really good supply; that's when all these other retail shops are going to open up and finally be able to make money," Bernard said. "Until that happens ... the RMDs are going to own [the market] for at least a year and a half."

State House News Service contributed to this report.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.