Will Nantucket become the next hot spot in marijuana tourism?
Since legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, Colorado resort towns like Boulder have become hot spots for weed tourism. Vacationers stay in smoking-friendly hotels, sign-up for cannabis cooking classes and take tour buses to grow houses, smoke shops and pot cafes. In what The New York Times has called the “Green Rush,” legalization has sparked a tourism explosion in Colorado that’s broken records year after year.
However, many critics argue that legalization has also led to increased crime, traffic accidents, and drug and alcohol abuse among minors. Now that Massachusetts has become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana on the East Coast, is Nantucket bound to become the next stop for weed tourists?
“I do not think that Nantucket will become a hotspot for marijuana tourism, but I cannot predict the future,” says Roberto Santamaria, Nantucket’s director of health. “We can regulate out marijuana tourism, but we have to do it together.” Santamaria is responsible for writing the requirements for licensing the retail sale of recreational marijuana, which includes drafting regulations that will be presented to voters at Town Meeting in 2018.
This is not new turf for Santamaria, who as the deputy director of health in Framingham, Massachusetts, wrote the medical marijuana regulations in 2014. He will rely on that document and the input and expertise of the Board of Selectmen, the Nantucket Police Department, and the Zoning and Planning departments to draft the local regulations for recreational use and sales of marijuana on the island.
Nantucket residents backed Question Four 61 percent to 39 percent — a wider margin than the statewide approval — making it legal for anyone twenty-one and older to cultivate six plants and possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Pot shops are set to open in 2018, and cafes will open shortly thereafter.
One issue Santamaria needs to address is smoking regulations. At present, there is no statute that prevents smoking marijuana in public, nor have the long-term effects of secondhand smoke undergone longevity studies. Santamaria says that the island’s regulation on public use will resemble that of states like Colorado, where smoking is restricted to private property.
When it comes to regulating the marijuana itself, Santamaria is particularly concerned about edibles — pastries and candies baked with marijuana — as the new trend is in producing goods with a high concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive alkaloid that makes people high. “Are there limits to the amount of THC in a brownie or a lollipop?” he asks. “If so, how can that be tested? Are there any laboratories in Massachusetts that can certify a product?” Even if there are labs off-island that can do so, he says, transporting marijuana via a federally regulated operator such as the Steamship Authority, the HyLine or the airlines is illegal.
The number of dispensaries, retailers and licenses issued on the island will be set by Board of Selectmen policy, Board of Health regulation, or by Town Meeting vote. Santamaria said that there are many avenues to limit the number of retailers, citing that the departments of Zoning and Planning and Land Use are in the process of setting their own regulations.
“Nantucket voters supported the ballot questions by strong majority [regarding] marijuana, so I don’t think the planning board would support prohibition through zoning,” says Planning Director Andrew Vorce. “It could be proposed to Town Meeting through citizen initiative or by another board.”
Since the law passed last fall, the date of license issuance has been pushed back to April 1, 2018. Per current state guidelines, only those with medical marijuana dispensary experience will be allowed to apply for those initial permits. One such dispensary is Mass Medi-Spa, a nonprofit, registered marijuana dispensary (RMD) that has received a non- opposition letter from the Board of Selectmen and is applying for a medical permit for 41E Old South Road.
While Mass Medi-Spa will only sell marijuana to qualifying patients or their personal caregivers, there is a provision in the state guidelines whereby a medical dispensary would be permitted to sell to anyone over the age of twenty-one should further delay in the approval of state or local regulations hold up the opening of a retail establishment. Mass Medi-Spa appears on track to open this summer.
At least one Nantucket resident, Jenny Bence, is applying for a license to operate a retail establishment. Bence, owner of The Green, is in the early stages of what she called a “very long process” and was reticent to talk in any detail about her plans at this time.
So where will retail pot shops be located? While that is still to be determined, it is likely that they will only be permitted in the same zoning districts as RMDs. “There may not be any specific bylaws pertaining to retail sales [locations] beyond these existing… regulations,” said Marcus Silverstein, Nantucket’s zoning enforcement officer. Santamaria will push for a thousand-foot minimum distance statute from schools and certain other community sectors in a board of health regulation.
Of course, state and local taxes will be imposed on retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products. The state will tack on a 3.75 percent surcharge to its 6.25 percent sales tax, and local jurisdictions are allowed to add up to a 2 percent tax. “The state…has the tax earmarked for ‘enforcement’ efforts,” said Santamaria. “The local tax can be earmarked for other uses. I do not know what they will be, as of yet.”
It is fair to say that the revenue will be a boost to Nantucket’s coffer. To date, tax revenue generated by the sale of marijuana in the two-and-a-half years since legalization in Boulder has topped $6.7 million, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, with most of the money going into the city’s general fund.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are charged with a difficult task to be sure. The law permits those “21 or older to purchase, possess, or manufacture one ounce or less of marijuana, of which not more than five grams can be in the form of marijuana concentrate.” But to Santamaria’s earlier point, how do the police test for that concentration?
Moreover, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal, but as there is no way to test for that either, officers may have to rely on other evidence such as behavior and smell when assessing an individual for impairment. Will enforcement officers require a search permit to enter the homes of personal growers to make sure they are cultivating the legal number of plants?
Police Chief William Pittman is waiting for guidelines from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security that will address and clarify all issues pertaining to enforcement. “I think that history is going to reflect on this as a huge mistake,” says Chief Pittman. “I was in high school in the seventies. I saw first-hand what marijuana did to some of my classmates, several of whom are now deceased due to suicide or overdose. The only thing I saw that was a common denominator was they were marijuana users. Coincidence maybe, but my feeling is there is a close link.”
Leading up to the vote last fall, there was staunch opposition to the legalization by law enforcement groups and anti-drug organizations, both of which claimed that a yes vote would expose underage users to marijuana and would also give legitimacy to an unhealthful substance.
Sarah Chotkowski, coordinator of clinical operations at Fairwinds, a counseling center on Nantucket that provides addiction recovery services, has concerns about the impact the legalization will have on adolescents. “Generally, when adults have easier access to a substance, so, too, do teenagers in their orbit,” she says. “We know marijuana….is absolutely toxic to a brain that is still developing.”
That said, she is hopeful that the island will benefit from seeing how other communities that have addiction epidemics like Nantucket’s have managed the transition. “Fairwinds…is deeply committed to reviewing the available research and incorporating it into our agency policies and clinical practices,” she says.
For now, there are so many unanswered questions, and officials at both the state and local levels are tasked with writing, implementing and enforcing regulations that will hopefully pave the way for recreational marijuana use to quietly meld into the fold of day-to-day life. So will Nantucket become the Boulder of the East? We’ll just have to wait for the smoke to clear to find out.