BY KILLIAN DOBROTH
Since the first recreational marijuana dispensary in Northampton’s history opened, so have a realm of new possibilities for Western Massachusetts residents.
What began as a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Northampton’s downtown district has evolved into a current hub for the legal purchase of marijuana products. The dispensary, New England Treatment Access (NETA), began with the work of NETA’s Western Massachusetts Regional Director Leslie Laurie, who originally took interest in the marijuana industry as an activist in the field of public health.
“Before I started with NETA, I was the President and CEO of Tapestry Health,” said Laurie, who held her position at Tapestry for 40 years before joining NETA. “One of Tapestry’s big efforts is dealing with the issue of opiates. I got to see firsthand what the issues of addiction were all about.”
Laurie has personally found medical marijuana to be helpful to her health. She suffers from Crohn’s disease and has found an accepting culture in Western Massachusetts for people who use medicinal marijuana to help treat their health conditions.
“People with multiple sclerosis were able to get lotions. I was able to see the benefits of medical marijuana,” Laurie reflected. “I’ve seen over the years the evolution of people’s feelings about this. It was really inspiring for me that the mayor of Northampton was willing to be the first adult-use purpur of recreational marijuana. What he wanted to communicate was that this was just like any other opening of a business in town.”
Ever since the legalization of recreational marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts in November of 2018, NETA has begun to sell marijuana to any citizen with a valid ID over the age of 21. NETA also works hand-in-hand with patients who hold medical marijuana cards.
The advantage to having a medicinal card is that it avoids the 20 percent state tax on recreational marijuana purchases in Massachusetts. Northampton and NETA made an arrangement where 17 of the 20 percent tax goes to the State of Massachusetts, while the other 3 percent goes to the city of Northampton.
A medicinal card may cost anywhere between $125 and $250 on average. In order to prescribe patients with medical cards, a doctor must become certified by taking an online course called the Comprehensive Cannabis Curriculum. This introduces physicians to the endocannabinoid system and its interactions with medical cannabis so that doctors understand marijuana and its effects as accurately as they would any other prescription drug. Any citizen of Massachusetts can attain a medical marijuana card from a doctor.
Getting a medical card is a two-step process. First, a patient goes to a doctor to become certified as a medical marijuana patient. Afterwards, the patient will receive their card from the Cannabis Commission. Each year after this, the patient must become recertified by their doctor and revalidate their card with the Cannabis Commission.
One distinguishing feature of the dispensary is that it offers a menu describing strain, TAC percentage, THC percentage, CBD percentage and patient-reported effects, which is unique in the market of buying legal marijuana.
Classified as a Schedule One Substance federally and as a decriminalized controlled substance in Massachusetts until two years ago, marijuana’s local market has been largely underground. This meant that users traditionally relied on a black market to purchase the drug, usually without adequate information relating to the potency and effects of the strain.
“For patients, customers and community, I don’t see a downside,” Laurie said. “We are a really positive influence in the city in terms of economic development. Jobs in the marijuana industry are good, clean jobs and bring tax dollars into the city.”
Robert Donald Julius is a veteran of the Korean War and the first patient in NETA’s history. He uses marijuana to help with his anxiety. “I came with the first guys in line. I love the people here. I love the energy here,” said Julius.
One issue for veterans is that marijuana is still federally illegal, so patients under the Veterans Health Administration cannot be fully transparent with the Veterans Affairs about their marijuana use. Opiates such as Oxycontin, which killed 15,000 American citizens in 2017, are prescribed to veterans by their doctors. Meanwhile, marijuana, which has no history of death due to overdose, is largely neglected by the veteran’s healthcare industry.
Similar legal complications exist for citizens who live in poverty. Because marijuana is federally illegal, citizens who benefit from government-subsidized housing are not allowed to use marijuana on their properties.
While initially the tax revenue of marijuana sales per person has been lower in Massachusetts than in other states such as Colorado, Nevada and California, Massachusetts’ nine recreational marijuana dispensaries have already seen $45 million in sales since spring.
Massachusetts has a slower approval process than other states for new marijuana businesses to emerge. The state has projected a $133 million tax revenue for marijuana in 2020. This is about one fifth of the annual cost of welfare in Massachusetts.
“We’ve already had a very wonderful effect in the city of Northampton,” Laurie said. “Many people have come here for NETA and found out what a great place Northampton is for food and coffee. I think that has helped the economic development of the city along with tax revenue.”