Officials, specialists defend ‘take it slow’ pace on pot for city

In a panel discussion about cannabis held in Codman Square last week, medical experts, community representatives, and legislators voiced concerns about health impacts and marketing to teenagers in suggesting that Boston slow down the process of opening up retail shops.

Dan Hogan, the program manager at Codman Square Health Center, moderated the discussions and the Q&A with Cynthia Loesch-Johnson, the president of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council, Ian Huntington, a medical doctor at the Health Center, and Jennifer Flanagan, commissioner of the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC). About 45 people turned up amidst a raging January rain storm.

The discussion centered around health and safety and legalized recreational marijuana. Huntington, a primary care doctor, said evidence from a National Academy of Science report supports the assertion that cannabis reduces pain and helps conditions such as Tourette’s, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. But, he said, it may not be a long-term cure for anxiety or sleep issues. Using marijuana also influences cognition, especially for teenagers, he added.

“When I’m seeing somebody in the clinic, I’m trying to find out if they have what we call the cannabis use disorder,” Huntington said. Symptoms include difficulty controlling the use of cannabis, impaired social performance, risky behavior, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.

For her part, Flanagan, a former state senator, took issue with the notion of recreational. “In my mind the word recreational constitutes fun and I don’t want teenagers thinking this is fun,” she said. “This is an adult use product. I’m worried about marketing to teens. I’m worried about children. I’m worried about families…You [cannabis business owners] are not allowed to sponsor the Little League team. You don’t want to sponsor any event where 85 percent of the attendance is under 21,” she said.

Flanagan’s worries were echoed by Siu Ping Chin Feman, 36, a medical doctor from Cambridge, who said study results show that teenagers are perceiving marijuana as less and less risky as it becomes legal.

“We are heading in this direction where it’s hard to stem the tide of this being an everyday thing that’s not seen as risky. But kids are developing brains and it’s riskier for them than it is for an adult to use,” she said.

Some in the audience had other concerns, one of them being why Boston still doesn’t have a pot shop.

Flanagan said nobody from Boston applied in the initial rollout, and that could be because no applicant went through proper processes. She said applicants need to get appropriate financing and security background checks, and then go through the application process with the local community, the city and the state.

She also reminded people that Boston deals with issues that places like Leicester, where a cannabis dispensary has been open and running since last November, don’t have, such as tourists and traffic.

In response to Flanagan, Sean Wheeler, a Dorchester resident, said the worry about traffic being concentrated around one cannabis dispensary is because shops aren’t being opened fast enough to serve the entire metro area. Like others in the audience, he wanted to know why the pace of marijuana businesses opening in the city was going so slowly.

One of the legislators on hand indicated that one reason for the creeping pace issue is that to date the question of racial equity in the process has not been fully addressed. “We still aren’t ready,” said state Rep. Russell Holmes, “We are still dealing with questions around diversity. You still don’t see black folks in the process.”

Flanagan replied that CCC’s social equity program is supposed to be “top in the country,” but people without capital still can’t get into the business, and the commission doesn’t provide financial resources to applicants.

Both Loesch and Holmes said the process should be slowed down. “We are not in a rush. We don’t mind these other places going first…We are always going to be a good place for this market,” Holmes said. He added that cannabis delivery has fewer barriers for people of color to enter, and he is interested in getting the state to allow delivery as soon as possible.