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Lessons on legal pot from other states

Massachusetts has taken a go-slow approach to sales for recreational use.

An employee of New England Treatment Access in

An employee of New England Treatment Access in Northampton, Mass., holds a container with marijuana on Dec. 18. Photo Credit: Newsday/Lane Filler

The New England Treatment Access store in Northampton, Massachusetts, had the flavor of an Apple store during a new product launch Tuesday, with a festive crowd cheerily queued up on a whippy 20-degree morning to speak with intricately knowledgeable sales people and see sleekly packaged products. But the store’s main product, marijuana, is nothing new. What’s pulling in crowds is the ability to legally buy marijuana without a proven medical need.

On Nov. 20, NETA Northampton became the first pot shop in the eastern United States to sell to nonmedical customers. Three stores are now open statewide. That scarcity was a frustration for the crowd on Tuesday. Outsized demand at NETA forces tight limits on what each nonmedical customer can buy: just 3.5 grams each of marijuana flower, a few vape cartridges, high-powered high-tech marijuana products with names like wax and shatter, and one THC-infused chocolate bar. The rest of NETA’s large selection of tetrahydrocannabinol edibles, joints and bigger purchases of marijuana strains like Moonshine Haze and Master Kush have to be reserved for NETA’s medical customers.

At 11 a.m., 30 customers were queued up outside, and that many more waited inside, but most could have placed orders on their phones and strolled in with a confirmation email to pick up items moments later. That, though, would not have allowed customers the experience they’d come for. They ached to shop, like enthusiasts in a wine shop or jewelry store, for that perfect strain, lotion or vape.

In a speech Monday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, “Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.”

It’s a sentiment New Yorkers favored by 52 percent to 44 percent in an April Siena College poll, but it’s also a move that would create a lot of concern on issues such as driving high, addiction and use by minors. But a tour through the buying process at NETA shows Massachusetts and this retailer have done a lot to address such concerns, and New York would be wise to follow their cues.

NETA is about a half-mile from Northampton’s cramped Main Street, and has its own large lot and other parking options nearby. Medical users can walk right in, and are served on a separate side of the store from recreational ones. With first-week madness gone, online orders for recreational users are generally filled almost instantly.

Every batch of every product must be tested by a third-party lab licensed by the state, so customers know the exact strength and variety they get. There are strict limits on edible dosing and packaging, and firm rules on labeling, to head off the accidental overdoses other states have seen. Host communities must agree to locations, and get a marijuana tax of 3 percent for the trouble (the state gets 10.75 percent). Firm identification laws and harsh penalties bar sales to minors. Massachusetts’ creeping pace of allowing pot businesses to open, with 25 months between legalization and NETA’s first recreational sale, let the state and communities monitor the situation, even though the process stymies people who need or want the products.

Any annoyance, though, wasn’t evident Tuesday when like-minded shoppers lined up to enjoy the experience of buying properly, provably labeled and described marijuana products.

“They say they’ve been waiting 40 years for this,” said Leslie Laurie, 71, NETA’s director of patient services and a Great Neck South High School graduate, nodding at a line that included far more 60-somethings than 20-somethings, “and another hour or so won’t matter.”

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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