As state eyes pot cafe pilot, North Adams could be a participant

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NORTH ADAMS — North Adams could participate in a pilot of marijuana cafes, but residents shouldn't expect to see one soon.

Though the city is one of a handful of communities eligible for a program to test on-site social consumption at cafes or public events, Mayor Thomas Bernard said the process has only begun.

"If it's legal and permissible, then we have the ability to move forward, but I want to be very sensitive to concerns, particularly of the [addiction] prevention community," Bernard said.

The Cannabis Control Commission voted 3-2 last week to approve a policy that could result in a pilot program of social consumption sites in 12 communities.

The policy changes still require commission approval at its Thursday meeting. That vote would be followed by a public comment period and then another, final commission vote.

North Adams was one of five communities invited to opt-in to the pilot because Bernard participated in a commission-led working group on social consumption.

Bernard was the only member of the working group from Berkshire County.

A test of social consumption sites for cannabis would seek to identify potential problems.

"A pilot program provides an opportunity to closely monitor any unforeseen challenges and ensure that adequate resources are available and agencies are well-prepared for any issues that may come up in wider implementation," the group wrote in a May 10 memo.

"In that spirit, a cornerstone of this pilot program is the robust collection and analysis of data," it said.

All the speculation comes before a single retail marijuana business has opened in North Adams.

"It's a little tricky because we still haven't even seen what retail and recreational cannabis sales will look like for the city," Bernard said. "I would like to have the ability to have some understanding of that before we launch the social piece of it."

License terms

Any such businesses would be open to people 21 and older and designed for primary-use only — meaning that customers won't be consuming cannabis and, say, watching a movie or taking a painting class.

Under the proposal, two-year licenses for on-site consumption would be limited to licensed microbusinesses and craft marijuana cooperatives, as well as Economic Empowerment Applicants and Social Equity Applicants.

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"A primary goal of the pilot program is to promote and encourage the groups that have thus far been unable to meaningfully participate in the legal cannabis industry, despite the requirement for the Commission to ensure such participation in [state law]," the working group wrote in its memo.

The group recommended that smoking be limited to outdoors. It also highlighted concerns about driver impairment, restricting serving sizes of edibles, server recognition of customer impairment and restricting underage access.

"There are reasonable concerns and the CCC is performing its due diligence and its watchdog function," Bernard said.

Driver impairment was also a concern highlighted by Wendy Penner, director of prevention and wellness at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

"Unlike alcohol, where we do have a clear way to measure impairment, we don't have that for marijuana," Penner said. "It's very concerning."

Many obstacles

Even after last week's development, the path to cannabis cafes is lined with obstacles on both the state and local levels.

The pilot program would require that the state Legislature pass legislation allowing communities to vote to allow social consumption sites.

"None of this happens unless the legislation changes, so we have a little bit of time to get our ducks in a row and see what the timelines look like," Bernard said.

The city's zoning ordinances that regulate marijuana, adopted in 2018, ban social consumption sites. To participate in the pilot program, those regulations would have to be rewritten.

Further, licensed marijuana businesses "must be set back at least 500 feet from any school, day-care center or similar facility where organized youth activities occur," according to the city ordinance. But restrictions drawn up for on-site consumption businesses could be drastically different.

While she understands interest in social consumption, Penner said people ought to be "mindful about the impact of normalizing drug use," particularly with young people.

"It's another opportunity to invite the community to engage and think through that," Penner said.

Bernard could choose to reform the working group he formed in 2018 to recommend the original regulations. It consisted of representatives from a variety of stakeholders, including police, school administrators and community leaders.

Any revision to city ordinance would require the involvement of the Planning Board and City Council.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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