BOSTON (AP) — Two marijuana stores in Massachusetts were given the green light Friday to begin selling to recreational customers next week, making them the first commercial pot shops in the eastern United States.
Both stores, one located in Northampton and the other in Leicester, said they would open Tuesday morning after the Cannabis Control Commission, the state's marijuana regulatory agency, authorized them to begin operations in three calendar days.
The announcement ends a long wait for commercial sales to begin in Massachusetts. The state's voters legalized the use of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older in 2016, but it's taken more than two years for state legislators and regulators to reach the point where the first stores can finally open.
The target date for retail sales had been July 1.
The "commence operations" notice from regulators requires the stores to wait three days before opening so they can coordinate with local officials and law enforcement. The openings are expected to draw big crowds, based on the experiences of other legal U.S. states and Canada when they first launched recreational sales.
The Northampton store, operated by New England Treatment Access, said it would open for recreational sales at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Cultivate Holdings, which operates the Leicester store, said its doors would open at 10 a.m. the same day.
"This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state," said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the cannabis panel, in a statement. "To get here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets up and running."
Legal marijuana advocates, who had complained about the slow pace of regulatory approvals in the state, cheered the news Friday.
"We can rightfully squawk about state delays and problematic local opposition, but the fact remains that we're the first state east of the Mississippi to offer legal, tested cannabis to adult consumers in safe retail settings," said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the group that led the ballot question to legalize recreational pot.
Borghesani called it a "historic distinction" for Massachusetts.
Recreational marijuana is currently sold in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California and Nevada. Maine voters also approved a legalization question in 2016, but stores in that state are not expected to open until next year at the earliest.
The first Massachusetts stores are in the central and western part of the state, but there are currently no stores approved to open in the greater Boston area. That means that, for now, more than half of the state's population will not have easy access to recreational marijuana.
Many cities and towns in Massachusetts have resisted cannabis businesses, with some imposing outright bans and others making it difficult through zoning restrictions or other conditions.
The stores opening next week currently operate as medical marijuana dispensaries and have pledged to continue serving their registered patients.
New England Treatment Access "looks forward to providing legal marijuana to our customers, but we want our patients to know that we will never waver from our commitment to them and their needs," said Norton Albaraez, a spokesman for the company.
The store has a separate area for medical marijuana patients, and they will not have to wait in the same lines with recreational customers to enter the facility.
The company has already had ongoing discussions with local officials about traffic, parking and other public safety issues and is confident of a smooth opening, Albaraez added.