At first blush, Massachusetts appears soft on marijuana. The East Coast state became one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana possession in 2008. The state followed the action with medical marijuana legislation in 2012, and recreational marijuana legislation in 2016.
But actions taken by Gov. Charlie Baker ever since prove the state’s stance is tougher than one might think. An executive order by Gov. Baker pushed back recreational sales licensing to 2018 and more recently, Baker declared marijuana businesses non-essential during the coronavirus shutdown.
Those hoping to get a license to sell medical or adult-use marijuana in the Bay State need to ready themselves for a long journey. “Getting licensed is a very lengthy process,” says Charlena Berry, who as a principal consultant for Cannabis Business Growth has clients going through the process right now.
Applicants seeking licensure in Massachusetts first must pre-qualify with an Application of Intent. This step includes an involved background screening and social equity qualification process. Once approved, applicants identify a property for their business and enter a host agreement with the local municipality. The licensing process then flips back to the state, where several milestones must be met.
“For example, to move on to the next stage of licensing, applicants must submit a full set of standard operating procedures. The next step it to pass certain inspections as applicants build out their properties,” Berry says. “It’s a step-by-step way to get into business. I have two clients that started the process in 2018 and neither are open yet. The process is involved.”
Social Equity Matters
The Massachusetts Department of Health regulates patients of medical use marijuana, while the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission regulates licenses for dispensaries, cultivators, manufacturers, delivery and transport, micro-businesses, and retail establishments.
While anyone can apply, the state requires applicants to pay a non-refundable $200-$600 application fee, depending on the license the applicant seeks. Massachusetts cuts fees in half if the potential operator qualifies for social equity applicant status. The state also cuts annual licensing fees in half for owners with social equity status.
The State of Massachusetts’ social equity licensing provision gives communities historically affected by arrests and imprisonment for cannabis offenses an opportunity to take part in the legal cannabis industry.
Applicants qualify for social equity status if their income does not exceed 400% of the area median income; they live in an area of disproportionate impact; were convicted of a minor marijuana offense; or are married to, or the child of, an individual affected by or convicted of a marijuana offense. The state disqualifies anyone with fraud or felony charges.
“The goal of the social equity program is to redistribute wealth disparities to individuals who were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” Berry says. “The program qualifies them to access licensing differently and gives them technical assistance and training.”
Under Lock and Key
The words access control system never appears in Massachusetts licensing requirements. However, the state requires securing all entrances and limited access areas, keeping product in a secure vault, and locking doors housing video storage devices.
The document then says to “protect combination numbers, passwords, key cards for access, or electronic or biometric security systems, to allow only authorized personnel to have access to limited access areas.”
“The locking mechanisms can be numbers, passwords, electronic or biometric, but the state does not mandate the use of specific access control software,” Berry explains.
In Massachusetts, an access control system does not have to go beyond a lock and a key. However, sophisticated access control software not only secures entrances and exits, lockers and cabinets, and storage and limited access areas, these systems also track who enters and leaves at all times.
The state mandates business owners to keep a daily log of access to secure areas and to badge all visitors. Owners can do these activities manually or through access control software. “As a consultant, I always recommend an access control system. It gives you so much control over your operation,” Berry says. “However, access control is expensive and can be a barrier to those who are not well funded.”
Massachusetts law requires business owners to have a third party perform a security audit annually. The auditor will check visitor logs and access to secure areas, all of which are much easier to provide when access control software is used, Berry adds.
Sound the Alarm
Massachusetts requires marijuana businesses to have an adequate security system to prevent and detect diversion, theft, or loss of marijuana or unauthorized intrusion. The regulation includes specifics for alarm systems.
All entrances, exits, and windows require a perimeter alarm. The state also requires a failure notification system for the alarm system. The system should provide an audible, text, or visual notification of any failure in the alarm system within five minutes of the failure.
The state also requires a duress alarm, panic alarm, or holdup alarm connected to a central alarm system monitoring company that can notify local law enforcement.
The law also expects business owners to back up the primary alarm system with a secondary alarm system from a different vendor. Both alarm systems must be commercial grade.
Security Cameras Set the Standard
With every license, the State of Massachusetts requires surveillance cameras that continuously record any area that contains marijuana, all points of entry and exit, and in any parking lot, which must be well lit to capture clear images.
The regulation requires owners to direct cameras at all safes, vaults, sales areas, and areas where workers cultivate, harvest, process, prepare, store, handle, or dispense marijuana. They must angle cameras in such a way to capture images that clearly identify any person entering or exiting the areas. The system also must be able to produce a clear, color, still photo from video footage upon request.
Businesses must store time- and date-stamped video footage for at least 90 days and make it available to police upon request. When there is a pending criminal, civil or administrative investigation or legal proceeding, business owners must keep recordings indefinitely as they may contain relevant information.
“It does not say how long you may need to keep records during a pending investigation, which can get very expensive,” says Berry.
Massachusetts does not specify frame rates or resolution which Berry believes the state did to keep security affordable for less capitalized business owners in the social equity program. “The cameras, however, must produce a clear still image that readily identifies a person,” she says.
Businesses must securely store security footage to prevent theft, loss, destruction, or alterations. Limit access to surveillance storage areas to authorized personnel and law enforcement, and businesses keep an up-to-date list of those individuals and when they accessed specific areas.
There are plenty of hoops to jump through to get a marijuana business licensed in the State of Massachusetts. But the endgame is a safe and secure operation that protects products, employees, and the public.
About the author: Patrick Chown is the owner and president of security system integrator, Safe and Sound Security, and the president of Seed to Sale Security, a national brand serving the cannabis industry. Seed to Sale Security offers security system installation, cannabis security plans, and cannabis security consulting to cannabis companies.