NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) — With its youthful vibe and eclectic mix of culture, a small Massachusetts city seems a logical site for the nation’s first legal recreational marijuana sales east of Colorado.
An existing medical marijuana dispensary in Northampton — nestled in Massachusetts’ scenic Pioneer Valley — plans to open its doors within days to anyone 21 or older looking for products ranging from pre-rolled joints to cannabis-infused edibles, creams, lotions and cooking oils. A second store in the small town of Leicester could also open at or around the same time, while dozens of other retail applicants await final licensing approval from state regulators.
The initial openings come two full years after Massachusetts residents backed legalization, a vote hailed by a burgeoning cannabis industry eager to expand its geographic base beyond the several western U.S. states where recreational marijuana is sold.
Massachusetts is projected to see sales of at least $1.8 billion and as high as $5 billion annually, industry leaders predict.
But the road to legal sales has been a long and tedious one. The original target date of Jan. 1, 2018, was almost immediately pushed back six months by the Legislature, Then the July 1 date came, and went and still no stores were cleared to open. Frustration grew among would-be businesses and consumers alike.
Officials in many communities, including some where a majority of voters had approved legal recreational marijuana, kept pot shops away through moratoriums or zoning restrictions, or by demanding a steep price from cannabis businesses in exchange for signing host community agreements.
Not Northampton, which appeared to roll out the welcome mat. While about 54 percent of all Massachusetts voters supported the 2016 referendum, 73 percent in Northampton gave their blessing, one of the widest margins anywhere in the state.
“It’s already counter-culture. It’s like their customers are already here,” said Steve Morin, a 68-year-old retired delivery truck driver and Air Force veteran who lives in Springfield, Massachusetts. He visits Northampton frequently and described himself as an occasional marijuana user who may shop in the store when it opens.
“It will be good for tourism,” he added.
The city’s bustling downtown sports trendy restaurants and coffee shops, bookstores, galleries and a performing arts center. Northampton is home to Smith College, an elite liberal arts school for women and one of several colleges and universities — including the 30,000-student University of Massachusetts flagship campus — within a 10-mile radius of the city. Most undergrads, however, aren’t old enough to buy marijuana legally.
New England Treatment Access, which operates the dispensary, is hoping for the distinction of being the first commercial pot shop to open east of the Mississippi.
“There exists a marketplace for marijuana right now in Massachusetts and it’s our job as a regulated industry to over time displace the current illegal, untaxed and untested industry with one that is controlled, regulated, taxed and tested,” said Norton Albaraez, the company’s director of government affairs.
Anticipating long lines forming when the store first opens, NETA has worked closely with police and city officials on traffic and parking issues, and retained former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis — who became a national figure in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — as a security consultant, Albaraez said.