BOSTON — Marijuana users could get high at "cafes" or have the drug delivered to their doorstep under new rules being considered by state regulators, though it may be a long time before those services are available.
The state's five-member Cannabis Control Commission recently approved plans for a pilot project of social-consumption sites in a dozen communities, including five that have already volunteered — Amherst, North Adams, Provincetown, Somerville and Springfield. Regulators will allow up to seven other communities to participate.
Under the plan, regulators would review applications and grant licenses in the communities for venues such as cannabis cafes or bars, but cities and towns will have discretion over the types of licenses and how many are granted. Data collected during the trial will help determine if social-consumption sites are allowed elsewhere.
The commission has also approved a provision allowing for delivery. As part of the plan, drivers must see a state-approved ID proving that the buyer is at least 21.
Pot industry officials say the cafes are a natural outgrowth of retail sales and will give users a safe, clean environment to buy and consume marijuana.
"Having a place where people can consume cannabis in a social setting safely is important, but there's also a public safety aspect to it," said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association. "If people don't have a place to consume, they're going to do it in public, and that's not legal."
Opponents of the pilot program say allowing cannabis cafes and other social consumption will expand use of the drug. They note a growing amount of research showing negative mental health effects from use of the drug by youths and young adults.
"Cannabis cafes are going to normalize the drug and add more financial pressure to allow its use," said Jody Hensley, a policy adviser for the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, which opposed legalization. "We need to conduct a full public health review of the impact of those policy changes before they are finalized."
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have raised concerns about impaired driving and whether marijuana cafes provide a pathway for minors to obtain the drug.
The proposed amendments to the state's 2016 voter-approved recreational pot law still face hurdles.
For one, state law requires a citizen petition and vote before a community can authorize a new marijuana policy. But Secretary of State Bill Galvin, whose office must review the draft regulations, has said the state’s marijuana law doesn’t provide a mechanism for voters to weigh in on whether on-site consumption is allowed in their communities.
That will require approval from the Legislature, which itself could be an uphill battle. There are bills in the House and Senate to allow that, but lawmakers haven't acted on them.
The regulations drafted by the Cannabis Control Commission would not allow mixed-use licenses for businesses such as yoga studios or movie theaters.
Smoking marijuana would not be allowed at cannabis cafes or other indoor establishments, according to the proposed rules. Indoor vaping would be allowed.
Massachusetts' Clean Air law prohibits cigarette smoking in restaurants and bars, but it exempts most private clubs and fraternal organizations as long as they are closed to the public. Still, a Supreme Judicial Court ruling from 2006 allows local boards of health to ban smoking in private clubs.
Massachusetts' recreational marijuana law allows adults age 21 and older to possess up to 10 ounces of weed, and it authorizes regulated cultivation and retail sales.
Since November, more than a dozen retail marijuana stores have opened, including Alternative Therapies Group in Salem, and regulators say they expect four to eight new stores each month.
But social pot consumption remains controversial, and states that legalized marijuana years ago still wrestle with it. Only four states — Alaska, California, Nevada and Colorado — allow social consumption.
For example, Colorado legalized pot in 2014, and two years later Denver voted to legalize marijuana lounges. But crafting rules for the clubs was a lengthy, contentious process. More than a year after regulators started, pot lounges have yet to open for business.
Last year, then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a proposal to allow pot retailers to set up "tasting rooms" where patrons could sample products.
Alaska’s recently approved law allows pot to be used in designated areas within some stores that sell it.
Jim Borghesani, a marijuana industry consultant and spokesman for the 2016 campaign to legalize its use in Massachusetts, said public concerns about cannabis cafes are unfounded.
"It's no different than a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol," he said. "I think there will be a lot of interest in it from many communities."
Public hearings will be held on the regulations in mid-August, and rules could be modified before they go into effect.
State regulators are encouraging the public to weigh in on the proposed rules, which can be found on the commission's website: https://bit.ly/2KV3ZOs.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.