Grow, Gift, Repair

Legal weed helping the illicit market?

As they wait for approvals that don’t come, marijuana businesses continue to operate in a legal gray zone. Sieh Samura, 40, opened his private cannabis club in Boston in 2014, when only medical marijuana was legal. In 2018, Samura was given priority status under the state’s community empowerment program. Almost a year and a half later, Samura still doesn’t have an open dispensary. He needs something called a community agreement from Boston before he can apply for his state license, and he doesn’t have that yet.

So in the interim, Samura has continued running his private club, one of a handful in Boston and Worcester, where customers can bring their own product—much of it home grown or purchased on the illicit market—and share and smoke communally. They are unlicensed and supposedly legal, but when asked by POLITICO, state and local officials disagreed on whose job it is to regulate them.
When she heard this, Massachusetts-based cannabis advocate Maggie Kinsella laughed.

“So basically nobody knows what’s going on.”
Kinsella says this runaround between state and local governments has left New Englanders in the cannabis industry to fend for themselves. She says the lack of legal dispensaries with good product means 80 percent of the market is still underground. And a lot of the customers at the legal dispensaries, she adds, are primarily from out of state.

“It’s probably premature to say that we’ve had a big dent in the illicit market” says Steve Hoffman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission, the state’s independent commission created to monitor the licensed cannabis market. And, he adds, “I don’t think we’re ever completely going to eliminate the illicit market, I think that’s probably unrealistic.”

Like many cannabis advocates, Hoffman says the illicit market in Massachusetts likely won’t die until cannabis is fully legalized federally and access to things like banking—for basic needs such as loans and deposits—is easier for startup marijuana businesses. The barriers to entry, he says, are still high and discourage even those who have had approved licenses from opening up shop.