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Green Rush: Budding Developers See Dollar Signs for Berkshires’ Cannabis Culture

Andrea Nuciforo is a soft-spoken attorney (and former state senator) with offices in Boston and Pittsfield. He is also a founding member of Berkshire Roots, the largest cannabis grower in the area with a 26,000-square-foot facility and a medical-marijuana dispensary on Dalton Avenue in Pittsfield.

His phone rings nonstop because people have lots of questions about weed.

“I don’t consider myself a spokesperson for the cannabis industry,” says Nuciforo. “There is a whole community of people around this issue. It happens all the time: People who are unfamiliar with the law read the newspaper, watch CNN, and they are aware that there is a rapidly changing landscape in this country, but they still have questions. What does this mean for their business? Can they possess the product at work? What are the medicinal benefits? We’ve made rapid progress, especially with interested stakeholders, and there is opportunity everywhere.”

The wave of potential opportunity that has followed the 2016 state vote to allow recreational use of marijuana has yet to be fully unveiled. While the July 1 allowance of recreational sales was cause for celebration by cannabis users and potential businesses, the process of actually becoming licensed to sell is arduous. According to the Cannabis Control Commission, Berkshire County currently has six “packets” under review.

Berkshire voters were resoundingly supportive of legalizing recreational cannabis (Great Barrington, 64.1 percent; Egremont, 65.3 percent; Pittsfield, 58.5 percent; Monterey, 63.2 percent; Sheffield, 61.9 percent) and favor the idea that dispensaries will enhance the local community.

Many area businesses are already strategizing how to make the most of this “green rush.” 1Berkshire president Jonathan Butler and his team are “kind of shooting in the dark,” as Butler puts it, when it comes to capitalizing on cannabis culture as part of the Berkshire brand. They have had several calls from interested developers .

“We’re certainly embracing the potential that this has,” Butler says. “It will further diversify the experience of visitors here and bring another audience. Although we don’t have a marketing campaign for this—we’re still focusing on helping educate businesses and the public—we’ve been paying attention to other regions that have become cannabis destinations.”

Butler says that 1Berkshire is looking to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for guidance as recreational sales become a reality, and hoping for a “little more direction” from Boston as the industry grows.

“A whole new economy has evolved. It’s a little bit like the Wild West or like the solar/alternative-energy industry in the 1990s,” says Butler. “Right now, we have lots of properties for sale or under contract with eyes on the cannabis industry. We’re not sure what that landscape is going to be in the next one to two years. But there is no question that there is opportunity here.”

What kind of opportunities are we talking about?

Hundreds, according to information provided at a “cannatourism” meeting held at Jiminy Peak earlier this year, hosted by Berkshire Roots and 1Berkshire. Some 60 business owners, stakeholders, and interested citizens attended the meeting to find out more about what cannabis can bring to the Berkshires.

Apparently, it’s a lot, beginning with Massachusetts’s projected 2018 total legal spending, which exceeds $400 million. By 2021, that amount jumps to $1.2 billion for the state (compared with $1.9 billion in Colorado). These numbers, when broken down into on-the-ground opportunities, are nearly limitless, according to research done by Jane Rohman & Associates, Berkshire Roots’s PR team. Bud and Breakfasts, Canna Bus tours, cannabis-themed weddings and dinner parties (including flower arrangements), cooking classes, yoga retreats, wellness tours, pipe making, “Puff, pass, & painting” forays, and a host of other ideas could widen the already wide pipeline of visitors to the area and generate businesses that grow out of the cannabis culture.

With a 17-percent state sales tax and a three-percent local tax, recreational-use marijuana is a boon for state and local coffers. According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, taxes on recreational marijuana sales could net the state anywhere from $44 million to $82 million in the next fiscal year. For most voters and industry leaders, this is a clear win for the local economy, including retail and tourism, real estate and healthcare.

Kathleen McKinnon is the Clinical Research Manager for Canna Care Docs (CCD), the largest medical marijuana evaluation center in the U.S., with offices in more than 30 locations nationwide, 11 of which are in Massachusetts alone (with others in Maine; Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Delaware; and Canada). CCD opened its Pittsfield location at 505 East Street in August 2017 as the demand for medical-marijuana increased.

McKinnon began with CCD as a part-time employee after a long career as a dental hygienist. She has become the unofficial face of marijuana education in the Berkshires and has been at the helm of more than a half-dozen informational “Marijuana as Medicine” talks (co-developed with Berkshire Roots), targeted at the general public, patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers. Last year, McKinnon spoke at places like the Berkshire Athenaeum (with nearly 200 people in attendance), the Outpatient Rehab Department at Berkshire Medical Center, the Pittsfield Rotary Club, and the Porchlight Visiting Nurses Association, to name a few.

“My focus is on education,” says McKinnon, who often works 72-hour weeks. “There are so many methods and treatments with cannabis. And people, especially the elderly and veterans who are struggling with health issues and anxiety, are curious about cannabis treatment. It’s come a long way in the last few years, but we are still at the ground floor.”

In fact, the cannabis industry may be growing faster than the weed itself. Increased interest in acquiring local, commercial real estate is significant. Stakeholders and investors, both outside and within the county, have been eyeing, buying, and developing sites for future dispensaries. Berkshire Welco, LLC, in Sheffield recently satisfied all of the requirements necessary to submit an application for a state recreational license, including holding a public-information session—albeit to a lukewarm reception.

Sheffield is not the only town to be less than enthusiastic about marijuana miracles. In Lee, a recently adopted zoning bylaw prohibits retail pot shops on Main Street. In Great Barrington, the planning board and board of selectmen have butted heads about repurposing the Housatonic paper mills to become manufacturing facilities, with some cannabis opponents concerned about changing the character of the community if that were to happen. A major industrial facility (some 30,000 square feet) proposed for a lot in New Marlborough was met with such resistance that the potential developer withdrew his application—for now. 

While McKinnon is fairly certain that there will be no recreational sales in the state until 2019, the foundation, even with restrictive bylaws and community concerns, has already been established—though not without a healthy dose of sweat equity and perseverance. According to federal law, cannabis is still considered a controlled substance and therefore still illegal. It’s also a cash-only business until banks are freed up to work with growers and distributors.

Yet, the opportunity it presents is too good to walk away from, according to Nuciforo. “This is not for the faint of heart,” he says. “But we’re cautiously optimistic.”

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