Nearly two years after the first recreational marijuana sales began in Massachusetts, it’s safe to say the budding industry is contributing mightily to the state and regional economy, despite a significant hit to sales earlier this spring when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered dispensaries for two months.

How’s this for impact? Since first sales began on Nov. 20, 2018 — New England Treatment Access in Northampton was one of the first two companies to open on that day, when it made its first sale to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz — more than $785 million in sales have occurred by the end of this summer, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Those sales, in turn, generated an estimated $150 million in tax revenues for state coffers, some of which made its way to cities and towns where the dispensaries are located.

“The voters of Massachusetts, the 1.7 million or so, who said ‘yes’ to Question 4 in 2016 can take a lot of pride in the fact that they eliminated a serious historical injustice,” says Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney who chaired the 2016 marijuana legalization campaign committee. “And I think future generations will look back on this time as history (in the making).”

More than 60 stores are now open statewide, including some 15 in Hampden, Hamphire and Franklin counties, with many more in the pipeline both locally and throughout the state.

Adding to the rosy numbers are future predictions of the industry’s rapid growth. BDS Analytics, a cannabis industry market research company, in early April predicted that the marijuana market in Massachusetts will reach $1.35 billion in 2024, figures that were calculated before the COVID shutdown. The company says it will update those figures soon to reflect the new economic realities businesses face because of the pandemic.

Evans says that in addition to the economic boost of marijuana sales, the impacts of legalization over the long run will also be positive medically and recreationally.

“The most beneficial thing about legalization is that no one’s getting arrested for (using) marijuana anymore,” Evans says. “That’s why we legalized, to stop the arrests and the use of marijuana as being an excuse for wrecking people’s lives … The legalization will continue to be beneficial because it allows marijuana to be used for medical purposes, as medicine, and provide access that will not subject them to criminal charges.”

But it’s certainly not been smooth sailing for dispensaries this year. Many shops that were not catering to the medical clientele were forced to shut their doors in mid-March, per Gov. Charlie Baker’s orders. And the ones that were allowed to remain open had to significantly alter their business practices to adhere to safety guidelines. While the dispensaries in the area that closed because of COVID are now back open, they have each had to make adjustments as social distancing becomes the new normal.

Back in action

Adult-use dispensaries were some of the first local industries to bounce back. Here’s a look at what some of those shops offer.

The Verb is Herb opened in downtown Easthampton in early 2019, and offers a full array of recreational products. The store is currently fully open for in-store and curbside pickup, preorders through its website or by calling, which is preferred.

Colonial Cannabis, which opened in June of 2020, is the second adult-use pot shop to open in Northampton. The store sells approximately 12 different strains of flower, nine types of pre-rolled joints, 10 types of vaporizers and concentrates, a variety of edibles, in addition to topicals and tinctures. They are only offering curbside pickup transactions and customers are required to pre-order on their website and to select a pick-up time.

Some people are leery of trying marijuana because they don’t know how it will affect them. Canna Provisions, located in Holyoke and Easthampton, sells three different types of strains of products: calming, energizing and balanced, to fit their customer’s needs and lifestyle. Their infused product-line consists of edibles, lotions, salves and tinctures. Their traditional menu includes flowers, prerolls, vaporizers and concentrates. Customers are encouraged to pre-order online or through calling the store, but it is not required.

253 Farmacy in Turner Falls is the second marijuana dispensary located in Franklin County. Their adult-use menu consists of “kosher certified cannabis products” including their specialty 253 flower strains. The sales floor of the store is open and pre-ordering through the app Leafly or by phone is available for quick in-store pick-up.

Ending stigmatism

The marijuana industry is currently one of the most stigmatized industries out there, those in the industry say. To help combat some of the misconceptions surrounding it, INSA, a prominent dispensary in the Valley, focusing on educating new and prospective customers on the different marijuana products. Prior to COVID-19, INSA used to offer training for clients in their storefronts in Springfield and Easthampton, and while still abiding by health guidelines, they have been able to adapt this integral aspect of their business.

“We have created this online program, called Ask Insa, (which allows) people to email our expert on cannabis, Lisa Blach, who will either answer questions via email or set up a personal video consultation with either recreational customers or patients to educate them on whatever they’re interested in about cannabis,” Lewis Goldstein, the chief marketing officer at INSA explains. “(This program) has been up and running for about a month, and we have had approximately 450 clients that we’ve talked to so far.”

INSA, which grows and harvests plants for their products in Easthampton, is one of many dispensaries that had to close the recreational part of their business at the onset of the pandemic. However, the Easthampton and Springfield stores are now fully open with the exception of social distancing guidelines. Additionally, they offer curbside pick up where customers can pre-order online and pick up their orders outside.

Similar to INSA, Patriot Care, located in Greenfield, also shares a philosophy centered around educating their customers. As stated on their website, the company’s goal is to “redefine the experience of cannabis for the experienced user and uninitiated alike.”

In addition to offering a full line of products from facial serums to concentrates, the store provides over-the-phone assistance and online resources for prospective consumers looking to get a medical marijuana card. The storefront is now open for indoor adult-use sales, curbside pick up and pre-order reservations are available through the app Leafly.

RISE Recreational & Medical Dispensary, located in Amherst, opened in 2018 for medical sales and in 2019 for adult-use sales. The dispensary is fully-open but currently requires customers to place their order online beforehand and to choose a pickup time. The building has separate entrances and exits depending on what type of service individuals are visiting for.

“It’s (specifically) designed to give customers their privacy,” says Ben Sussman, RISE’s outreach specialist for Massachusetts. This setup makes it easier to enforce social distancing protocols.

The medical and recreational menus both consisting of their locally cultivated flower, as well as ones grown from other local dispensaries, in addition to pre-rolls, edibles, oils for vaping and extracts, topicals and tinctures.

Known for being the first medical marijuana dispensary to open in September of 2015 and trailblazer for the cannabis industry in western Massachusetts, NETA, located in downtown Northampton, recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.

Along with their full menu of medical and recreational marijuana products, the company does a lot of outreach and has a NETA Cares program where they donate food to the Northampton Survival Center and toiletries to the Interfaith Shelter and Safe Passage.

To register as a patient, the store requires that customers become registered, which due to COVID-19 is now being done over video and through telehealth appointments. At the beginning of the pandemic, NETA Northampton began manufacturing hand sanitizer. The store is currently offering curbside pickup as well as delivery on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Unexpected hurdles

Many businesses that were planning to open around the start of the pandemic faced a number of unexpected challenges.

The Heirloom Collective in Hadley opened the medical portion of its business at the beginning of March and the recreational part at the beginning of September. The sales floor of their store, which was closed during the height of the pandemic, is currently allowing eight customers in at a time, as well as offering curbside pick-up where orders can be placed through its website or by calling the store.

Alex Abrams, the director of sales and retail operations, explains how they have built their reputation due to the high quality of their products, specifically their craft flower. All of their flowers are cultivated in their growing facility in Bernardston.

“We use incredible cultivation techniques to ensure that it is a clean product,” Abrams says. “We pick some very unique genetics and we have a gently grown philosophy. We really try to use methodologies that don’t affect the overall quality of the flower … and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people on it.”