Standing outside a strip mall in Springfield, I pull on the handle of the double-deadbolted door of a storefront with dark windows and a paper green arrow that says “Herbs” hanging under the company sign, but it doesn’t budge.
I can hear men inside talking and laughing, so I give a knock and stare straight into the camera above the door, hoping there’s something in my face that will let the bouncer know I’m cool. Nothing. Do I need to know a secret knock?
I’m at a “club” named for the lyrics in an iconic Rick James song at 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday because I got word that if you pay a cover charge at this place, you leave with a free gift of marijuana or cannabis-infused chocolate.
The sun is setting and a couple of men are standing outside waiting with me now. A friendly man with facial tattoos gets in line and tells us the club only lets a few people in at a time. After waiting around for five minutes, a few people leave the club, and three men and I go inside.
Right now in Massachusetts you can walk into a storefront, plunk down $50, and walk out with an eighth of weed — all you have to be is 21 or older. No medical card required.
This may sound like you can legally buy weed — and before the first marijuana retail licenses are issued, too — but the people handing out buds are adamant that this is not what’s going on.
Since legal recreational marijuana went into effect in Massachusetts on Dec. 15, 2016 across the state, cannabis enthusiasts have been finding ways around the state’s laws to make money off weed before licensed retailers open in 2018. Up until the state issues licenses and provides a start date for legal sale of recreational pot, people age 21 and older in Massachusetts can possess and use marijuana for funsies, but they can’t buy it.
It is, however, legal to gift weed in quantities under an ounce.
So, people aren’t selling weed — they’re selling experiences and cheap items that come with free pot gifts. You know, if the customer is into that sort of thing. Another work-around is to rent space to a customer, like a locker, then fill that space with gifted weed.
“These types of businesses are popping up all around … This is not an abnormal thing,” says Marvin Cole, a Northampton lawyer specializing in marijuana law. “For the ones that are doing it, it’s unclear what’s legal or illegal.”
At the club in Springfield, about five of us stand in a line partitioned off by black stanchions from the rest of the space. The room is sparsely stocked: the floor is a cement gray and the walls are lined with some seriously sick bright and funky hoodies. There are some display cases, like you see in jewelry stores, across from where we wait that contain knitted caps, vape pens, vape juice, huge cone rolling papers, and some cannabis pipes.
At the front of the line behind the counter is one man in a gray sweatshirt running the cash-only register. Behind him is a handwritten sign with six strains of marijuana listed on it. Two are crossed out — they’re crowd favorites — and all of them claim to be 19 percent THC or higher. Another man in a gray T-shirt ducks out from behind a black curtain behind the counter carrying armfuls of plastic medicine bottles prepackaged with pot.
“For anyone who hasn’t been here before,” says the man at the register, “I want you to know that we don’t sell weed. If you leave here with nothing else, leave with knowing we do not sell weed. But …”
He explains that the place I am in is like a club. There is a “cover charge” to get in: $20 for basic admission and $50 for VIP. With the $20 admission, you can select a free gram from any of the available strains or get a cannabis-infused chocolate bar. For $50, you can choose three grams.
A woman who appears to be in her 60s is in front of me with her teenage son who translates for her with the cashier. She pays the basic cover, reaching into her wallet with hands that look like they’re aching with arthritis and heads out with a brown bag and one gram of Granddaddy Purple Haze.
With the cashier now, I try to chat him up. They’ve been open one month, he says, and it’s been nothing but busy. I make my purchase then consider hanging out at the club for a while, but no one else does — there’s no music and nowhere to sit — so I take my unmarked brown paper bag and head out.
Once home I realize I have been gifted a chunk of cannabis-chocolate in the bottom of my bag. Calls from the Advocate seeking comment from the club’s owner or manager were not returned.
How much of a risk pot club owners face is hard to tell, says Dick Evans, a Northampton attorney and winner of a lifetime achievement award from NORML, a pro-marijuana advocacy group. He’s not aware of anyone being charged in connection with this type of scheme. Part of the law voters approved on Nov. 8 specifically bans exchanges in which people try to skirt the law by selling cheap items for crazy high prices and then stuffing them with “free” weed. But this piece of the law is yet to be challenged in court and there is a wrinkle to it: there can be no remuneration of marijuana if it is advertised to the public. So does that mean as long as someone doesn’t take out a TV commercial to sell cannabis, the whole “club” thing is okay?
“The law is clear,” says Evans, “that the delivery of marijuana can’t be part of a promotional thing. In Chapter 7 of the new law, section A4, it says you can’t be punished for giving away or giving remuneration under an ounce of marijuana as long as the transfer is not advertised to the public.”
Evans says he’s also noticed a proliferation of marijuana retailers who, wink, aren’t marijuana retailers. What’s most interesting about this new business, Evans says, is that things seem to be going smoothly.
“Commerce is exploding and the sky is not falling,” Evans says. “I haven’t heard of any actual threats of harm to the public health or safety as a result of people exercising their new liberty.”
The state doesn’t seem to have the eradication of pseudo pot retailers high on the to-do list. January brought news that a man going by the name Corey Hampton was selling plastic sandwich bags — for $325 each — on Craigslist. Each bag came with a free ounce of weed. Thus far, it seems, he’s still in business despite having his activities trumpeted by the Boston Globe, the Associated Press, and NPR.
The federal government may take a different stance. Before Trump was elected president, Obama had issued a policy of not interfering with well-run, state-sanctioned medical or recreational marijuana businesses. Will Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions feel the same way?
“Overall, there’s not as much risk as there has been in the past,” Cable says. “Who knows how the new AG is going to treat marijuana.”
Evans can’t predict the federal response to weed either, but he has a hope: “Given the [Trump] administration’s other concerns, I’m thinking marijuana won’t be a big concern of theirs.”
Shoutout to Potsquatch, the PotCo mascot, for making us all laugh during that snow storm on Feb. 9. A video of the half sasquatch, half pot plant struggling through the snow behind a local WWLP reporter at the X in Springfield went viral. Something about a leafy ’squatch tumbling and hiding behind snow banks gives me a happy feeling inside.
Kristin’s not here, man, but you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.