One of the largest roadblocks to launching the retail market for legal marijuana in Massachusetts was eliminated Thursday as the Cannabis Control Commission approved provisional licenses for two testing laboratories.
Massachusetts officials had hoped to launch legal retail marijuana sales on July 1 but missed that target and have since refused to put a timeline on the rollout of an industry that voters approved at the ballot in 2016.
The lack of licensed independent testing labs, a category of license that the commission agreed to prioritize because all non-medical marijuana sold in Massachusetts must first be tested and approved by a lab, was among the reasons for the slower-than-expected implementation of the commercial cannabis market. It has been legal for adults 21 or older to grow and consume marijuana since December 2016.
“We’re getting closer,” CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman told reporters Thursday. “We have to issue final licenses, obviously, to retailers and to the labs because nothing can be sold unless their products are tested by a lab licensed by us. We have to do the final inspections required to do that.”
He added, “The other things are the applicants fulfilling all the terms of the provisional license.” The CCC will also have to license marijuana establishment agents, essentially employees of marijuana businesses, before those businesses may open. Hoffman said the CCC is in the midst of reviewing a number of those applications.
The CCC voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to license two testing labs that currently test and analyze medical marijuana for the Department of Public Health medical marijuana program to do the same for the non-medical market. The labs approved Thursday are CDX Analytics of Salem and MCR Labs of Framingham.
Executive Director Shawn Collins said there were no concerns raised with the CCC about either applicant and that both labs have said they have the ability to handle the increased testing load that will come with the adult-use marijuana market.
The CCC on Thursday also approved Alternative Therapies Group, Inc., to operate a second retail facility, this one in Salem, and Northeast Alternatives, Inc., to sell retail marijuana in Fall River. The commission also approved an application from Cultivate Holdings, which was the first company approved for retail sales, to produce marijuana products.
Thursday’s commission votes bring the total number of retail stores given provisional approval by the CCC to nine. They are expected to be located in Leicester, Amesbury, Brookline, Northampton, Wareham, Plymouth, Easthampton, Salem and Fall River.
The commission has issued provisional licenses for five cultivation facilities, which combined will be allowed to grow up to 170,000 square feet of marijuana canopy at a time. Those growing facilities are to be located in Leicester, Amesbury, Franklin, Plymouth and Easthampton.
Some of the cultivators given preliminary approval by the CCC already grow marijuana to be sold into the medical program. Last month, DPH issued guidance saying it will allow medical marijuana dispensaries to transfer some inventory to the non-medical market, as long as the department gives prior approval of the transfer.
A 2014 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University found the average marijuana harvest yield to be roughly 40 grams of flower per square foot of licensed growing space, with an average of four harvests per year.
Using those estimates, the five Massachusetts cannabis growers currently licensed could expect to produce a total of nearly 60,000 pounds of marijuana annually once operating at full capacity. That’s almost three times as much as the 20,697 pounds of marijuana purchased by Massachusetts medical marijuana patients in fiscal year 2018, according to DPH data, and roughly the weight of a small adult male humpback whale, according to the American Cetacean Society.
As of Thursday, the CCC had another 88 applications pending before it. Collins said Thursday that there are 27 applications awaiting CCC review, 34 that have been deemed incomplete and returned to the applicant to provide additional information and 27 for which the CCC is waiting to hear back from either its background check vendor or the host community.