As Massachusetts readies for the opening of its first retail marijuana shops, likely later this month, Cape Cod has set itself up as one of the hardest places in the state to start a recreational marijuana business.
In six out of fifteen Cape towns, recreational marijuana has been broadly banned, and other towns strictly limit the number of retail stores that can open. For many potential entrepreneurs, the Cape is a difficult place to gain a foothold.
Tim McNamara is a good example. He's a founding member of a marijuana cultivation business called Holistic Health Group. In his day job, he's a lawyer in Sandwich, and he and his family own a home in Mashpee, but he's had to look off Cape, to Middleborough, to find a place for Holistic Health Group's grow and retail facility.
He said he would have loved for Holistic Health Group to be based on the Cape, but that individual town regulations forced him to set up elsewhere.
"I’m eventually going to probably move my residence off Cape, and that’s just a consequence having so much going on off Cape at this point," McNamara said. "My business will be off Cape unless and until some of these communities start to come around."
One reason the Cape may be so restrictive is a feeling that recreational marijuana shops are not in keeping with a certain type of "Cape Cod" style, Steven Bournemeier, a staunch opponent to legalized recreational marijuana and a long-time resident of Orleans, explained.
"Orleans, like Woods Hole and other towns, has a character to it: sort of a traditional seaside community, small, the character is not urban," he said. "So that is potentially at risk if we were to introduce marijuana, or allow the towns to license marijuana retailers."
He added that he isn’t entirely against legalizing marijuana, though he doesn't think it's an issue towns should have to regulate.
"What they probably should have done was create a state distribution system rather than delegating it to the local authorities," Bournemeier said. "It just allows so much misunderstanding and contradiction and undercutting of what I believe was a well-intentioned effort to decriminalize marijuana."
Last month, Mashpee became the first town on the Upper Cape in which residents voted to allow recreational marijuana stores. The town capped the number, for now, at one business. Aja Atwood, a Mashpee resident looking to create a cannabis-centered startup, says the new legislation doesn’t just mean positive things for potential marijuana retail businesses.
"Because there’s so many different types of licenses available with cannabis, it’s not just a retail shop," she said. "There’s a cultivation license, which means you just grow... testing labs, manufacturing the product just to get it to the retail stores, that’s a whole separate process."
She hoped that by letting in just one retail store, Mashpee may be opening the door to an industry. And she added that for the Cape, she believed that accepting cannabis businesses just meant normalizing it.
"It’s funny. Everyone’s undercover, in my opinion. You’ll talk to someone one-on-one and find out everyone’s consuming. They have a cousin who used it to get off an opioid addiction," she said. "People are definitely using cannabis on the Cape, people just don’t want to talk about it."
Tim McNamara, of Holistic Health, said he believed the Cape’s fear of talking about marijuana is doing real economic harm.
"For people on Cape Cod to simply look at the marijuana shop and say, 'I don’t want that here' and to ban the entire industry, is extremely short sighted," McNamara said. "It’s not the tax dollars and stores, it’s the jobs and the careers that can be built out of this."
For now, a number of marijuana startup business owners, like Aja Atwood, are watching the Upper Cape and hoping the industry will have a chance to grow in Mashpee.