When will cannabis cafes open in Massachusetts and what will they look like?

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Imagine if alcohol was legal, but bars were not.

Sure, you could drink legally in your home, and there would be designated stores where you could buy beer, wine, and liquor. But there wouldn’t be any businesses — no bars, no restaurants, no music venues or theaters — where you could buy a pint and actually drink it.

That’s what the new recreational marijuana market in Massachusetts will be like for at least its first year.

The 2016 ballot question legalizing marijuana allowed the state to license “cannabis cafes” and other social consumption establishments, where adults can purchase and consume marijuana on the premises. But even though retail stores are set to (slowly) begin opening next month, Bay State residents still have a while to wait before they’ll see any Amsterdam-style cafes where they can gather and light up a joint.

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Under the marijuana industry regulations approved in March, the Cannabis Control Commission will not license any social consumption establishments, or weed delivery businesses, until at least well into 2019 — if ever.

So when could they arrive?

The agreement to stagger the rollout of the state’s new industry came after Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and other lawmakers urged the commission not to simultaneously begin licensing social use establishments and delivery services with retail stores this July, as they had initially planned.

“I think the experience coming out of both Colorado and Oregon has been this is a very tough industry to regulate straight out of the gate, and people should crawl before they walk, and walk before they run,” Baker, who opposed the 2016 referendum, told reporters in February.

Baker’s administration raised concerns that licensing social consumption establishments could lead to more people driving under the influence of marijuana, as well as more minors accessing the drug.

The commission subsequently agreed on a compromise to delay social use and delivery licensing, giving it more time to study those concerns. It gave itself an explicit deadline to revisit the subject, after collecting more information, by Oct. 31 and to adopt regulations by the end of February 2019.

CCC officials say the decision was based on the 10 public hearings they held throughout the state and nearly 500 public comments they received prior to their final regulation discussions.

“It was clear looking at the feedback that there was hesitance and lack of confidence in how the process will play out and I think it’s important for our commission to develop relationships where people feel that they can trust us, they can look to us to be answering the questions and addressing the concerns that they have,” Shaleen Title, a commissioner, told the State House News Service at the time.

The CCC says it’s difficult to predict when exactly the first licenses for social consumption would be issued. But officials note that the commission adopted its regulations for retail establishments this past March, but did not start issuing licenses until June 1. Perhaps a similar timeline would take place for the licensing of social consumption establishments in 2019.

When (or if) the commission does being issuing social use licenses, they will only be available to applicants through the CCC’s equity program — which seeks to redress the disproportionate harm done by the war on drugs to marginalized communities  — and craft cooperatives for an unspecified period of time.

Until then, what will the commission be studying?

According to public documents, the commission plans to look at ways to address concerns about impaired driving and underage access, which have been two of the public safety issues most consistently raised by legalization skeptics in general.

They’ll also look to tackle the issue of smoking versus vaping and other means of consumption like edibles and concentrates, especially since Massachusetts has a statewide ban on indoor smoking.

By: Nik DeCosta-Kilpa, Boston

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