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Cannabis commission ready to reopen recreational marijuana stores — if Baker allows it

Top officials at the independent agency that oversees the Massachusetts marijuana industry say they’re confident they can safely reopen recreational pot stores if Governor Charlie Baker reverses his emergency order forcing the businesses to close amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cannabis Control Commission chairman Steve Hoffman told reporters after the agency’s monthly meeting Thursday that he believes Massachusetts marijuana shops can operate safely by employing curbside pickup, appointment-only shopping, and other similar measures adopted by retailers that have remained open (including medical marijuana dispensaries overseen by the commission).

Hoffman said he “wants it known” that the commission is prepared to monitor the facilities and enforce state rules, including around social distancing, should they reopen. And in his strongest comments yet on the controversial cannabis shutdown, he noted that Massachusetts is the only state where marijuana is legal to have completely closed its recreational (or “adult-use”) industry. Marijuana firms are ineligible for federal bailouts, because the drug remains illegal under US law.

“It is unfair that Massachusetts adult-use operators are the only ones that are shut down across the country and are not eligible for any kind of federal assistance,” Hoffman told reporters during a virtual press conference. “I have no concerns whatsoever that we can operate this business safely. I think we’ve demonstrated that we can do so on the medical side of the business… [and] I think there’s absolutely no reason we can’t do exactly the same thing on the adult-use side.”

The commission’s day-to-day boss, executive director Shawn Collins, agreed that his staff is equipped to oversee a reopening of pot sales.

Baker’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In late March, the governor deemed recreational marijuana companies “nonessential” and ordered them to close. He has since defended the decision by saying it was necessary to prevent crowds of out-of-staters from coming to Massachusetts for marijuana and spreading the virus.

Baker has also suggested that restricting sales only to Massachusetts residents (as proposed by the industry) could be unconstitutional. However, a state judge wrote in a ruling last month that such a policy would almost certainly be legal under the circumstances, even as he upheld Baker’s power under state emergency laws to close recreational companies.

Hoffman on Thursday also said he wants to meet with members of an advisory board convened by Baker to plan the reopening of the state’s economy so he can “convince them that we are are totally confident” marijuana stores can open safely, regardless of whether the state considers them “essential.”

However, he said the group has yet to invite anyone from the commission to testify and conceded that ultimately, “it is Governor Baker’s decision, not mine.”

Industry advocates cheered the comments by Hoffman and Collins, which will likely ramp up pressure on Baker to end his blockade on marijuana.

“The experts have spoken and they are confident that they can safely reopen the adult-use market,” David O’Brien, the president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, said of the commissioners in a brief statement. “Governor Baker needs to start trusting the people he appointed to do their job.”

O’Brien and other critics have said the shutdown is unfair to marijuana consumers who rely on the drug for medical purposes but did not register for a medical marijuana card. They also fear it will destroy dozens of smaller, locally owned recreational companies with diverse owners, while steering business to the overwhelmingly white, investor-backed medical cannabis sector. And they pilloried Baker’s administration for allowing golf courses to reopen this week, saying it’s proof of a double standard.

“It is difficult to fathom Governor Baker’s decision to join other states in opening golf courses while he continues to be the only governor in the nation to keep adult-use cannabis stores shuttered,” said cannabis consultant Jim Borghesani, the former spokesman for the 2016 legalization campaign.

While the commission waits for Baker to act, it has taken steps to ease the effects of the shutdown. Most significantly, it allowed recreational firms to sell their inventory to medical dispensaries, providing some with at least a trickle of revenue. The agency on Thursday also voted to extend license renewal deadlines for affected companies.

Meanwhile, State Senator Diana DiZoglio earlier this week proposed legislation would give state payouts to marijuana companies and other groups ineligible for federal assistance, a measure backed by Hoffman.

But even proponents of the relief measures concede that the only way recreational businesses will survive is if sales are restarted soon, albeit with strict safety measures in place.

“We’re doing everything we can to provide economic relief,” Commissioner Shaleen Title said. “But the most straightforward form of economic relief is for these businesses to just be able to open again.”