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Study Finds Weed Cases Are Clogging Pennsylvania Courts

Marijuana-related criminal cases are clogging local courts in Pennsylvania and putting an unnecessary burden on scarce law enforcement resources, according to a new study from a justice reform advocacy organization.

The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, reviewed 27,826 criminal cases of all kinds prosecuted in Lehigh County and Northampton County between January 2018 and March 2021. The group’s analysis found that “marijuana criminalization slows our criminal justice system” and puts a strain on “understaffed public defenders” in the two jurisdictions.

According to the report, a total of 4,559 (about one in six) of the cases included a marijuana charge. Among those cases, 96% also involved an additional nonviolent offense, or co-charge. The analysis also found that marijuana-related court cases took an average of nearly five months (162 days) to reach a conclusion. The report noted that the longest-lasting marijuana-related case took 1,129 days, or more than three years, to be resolved in the courts. The case also included one additional charge of disorderly conduct that was eventually withdrawn by the district attorney’s office.

A Waste Of Public Resources 

Joe Welsh, the executive director at the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, said the report illustrates how prosecuting marijuana cases is expanding scarce public resources that could instead fund efforts to address “real crime.” Welsh also noted that nearby states including neighboring New Jersey have legalized adult-use cannabis, further illustrating the futility of continued prohibition. Regulated sales of adult-use cannabis began in New Jersey in April after Governor Phil Murphy signed recreational marijuana legislation into law in February 2021.

“Police are spending time charging people with marijuana offenses. That’s time taken away from serious crimes like rapes, murders and assaults,” Welsh said. “Particularly, considering that you can walk across the Northampton Street Bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg and purchase marijuana.”

Under Pennsylvania state law, marijuana possession is classified as a misdemeanor offense carrying penalties of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 30 days. However, local laws passed in Allentown and Bethlehem in 2018 reduced such charges to summary offenses, which do not require a suspect to be arrested. Instead, those convicted of a summary offense can avoid jail time and pay a fine as low as $25 for a first offense.

The local reforms were designed to give law enforcement officers more discretion when enforcing marijuana prohibition laws. But Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has circumvented the local reforms by requiring police officers in the county to file state charges for marijuana offenses.

“Local city councils do not have the power or authority to deviate from state law,” Martin told lehighvalleylive.com in an email. “The state law preempts the field. I took an oath to uphold the U.S. and Commonwealth constitutions; therefore, I don’t decide to enforce only the laws I choose to enforce. I enforce the law as written.”

Pennsylvania Governor To Pardon Marijuana Convictions

The report from Lehigh Valley Justice Institute comes at a time of increased focus on the impact of marijuana-related convictions in the Keystone State. In September, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced that he would pardon convictions for eligible marijuana offenses, including some cases that include a nonviolent co-charge. 

“Pennsylvanians convicted of simple marijuana charges are automatically disqualified for so many life opportunities: jobs, education, housing, special moments with family. This is wrong,” Wolf said in a statement from the governor’s office. “In Pennsylvania, we believe in second chances – I’m urging those eligible to apply now, don’t miss your chance to forge a new path.”

At a recent appearance in Monroe County, Wolf reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana despite a lack of attention on the matter from lawmakers, noting the good that comprehensive cannabis policy reform can foster in the state of Pennsylvania.

“To date, there has been no movement to advance legislation,” Wolf said last month. “So, I’m here today to ask again, and to focus on two particular benefits of legalization – potential economic growth and much-needed restorative justice.”

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Nevada Medical Pot Patients Can Sue Former Employer If Fired, Court Rules

If you’re a medical cannabis patient in Nevada, smoke up: medical cannabis patients in the state were recently empowered to consume cannabis on their own time after a landmark decision in court.

On December 1, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that employees in the state have the right to sue their former employees if they were terminated for consuming cannabis off the clock. Keep in mind, however, that adult-use cannabis consumers in the state aren’t exactly provided the same protections.

The ruling dates back three years, when Jim Roushkolb filed the lawsuit in the Eighth District Court in November 2019.

“It relaxes me,” Roushkolb told FOX affiliate KTNV, who suffers from PTSD and numerous other conditions. In 1995, Roushkolb was severely attacked when a former inmate assaulted him in his car as a corrections officer in Ohio.

“He opened the door, and he grabbed me, and he just hit me in the head with a pipe,” he said, “and just started beating me in the head, and he took his thumb and jammed it in my eye like that and tore my retina.”

Roushkolb used cannabis to ease PTSD symptoms and anxiety, but then in 2018, his employer, Freeman Expositions LLC, fired him on the spot after he tested positive for THC, which he was taking legally as a medical cannabis patient in Nevada.

His attorney Christian Gabroy immediately recognized a clear-cut case. 

“The company acted discriminatory, this company violated his rights, and this multi-jurisdictional, multi-million dollar company, they terminated him in violation of Nevada law,” Gabroy said.

Not the Same For Adult-Use in Nevada

Recreational cannabis smokers in Nevada might not get the same outcome in court. NORML pointed out last September that recreational cannabis consumers and patients are subject to a different set of parameters.

Nevada law limits employers from punishing workers who are enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis access program. Furthermore, a 2019 law makes it “unlawful for any employer in [Nevada] to fail or refuse to hire a prospective employee because the prospective employee submitted to a screening test and the results of the screening test indicate the presence of marijuana.” 

But good luck fighting it in court if you’re fired for a drug test. As it turns out—there’s plenty of legal precedent on the matter: Just last August, the Nevada Supreme Court denied a similar lawsuit for an employee fired for testing positive for THC.

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss a complaint by an employee who was fired for testing positive for THC for a routine test after getting in an accident.  

In the case of Ceballos v. NP Palace, LLC, the employee said that the positive THC result was due to his use of recreational cannabis at home, and that he was not intoxicated or impaired at work, complying with state law. 

Nevada law under NRS 613.333(1) makes it unlawful for employers to “[d]ischarge . . . any employee . . . because the employee engage[d] in the lawful use in this state of any product outside the premises of the employer during the employee’s nonworking hours” so long as “that use does not adversely affect the employee’s ability to perform his or her job or the safety of other employees.”

However, Nevada judges ruled that federal law—and the federal status of cannabis—also applies in that clause, and the plaintiff’s complaint was denied. A similar decision was reached by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2015. Using this logic, however, medical cannabis would also be illegal under federal law.

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Senator Files Bill To Prep for Federal Cannabis Legalization

Democratic Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado on Thursday introduced legislation designed to prepare the country for national cannabis legalization, laying the groundwork for drafting regulations to govern legal marijuana at the federal level. The bill, the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult Use Regulated Environment (PREPARE) Act, directs the U.S. attorney general to develop a regulatory framework to be in place for the eventual federal legalization of cannabis by Congress, which is likely inevitable as the popularity of cannabis policy reform continues to grow.

Hickenlooper was the governor of Colorado when voters legalized recreational marijuana with the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012. A month later, he convened the Amendment 64 Task Force to provide recommendations for the establishment of regulations that set the stage for Colorado’s successful legal cannabis industry. Last month, 10 years after Amendment 64 was approved by Colorado voters, Hickenlooper revealed that he planned to introduce the bipartisan PREPARE Act to create a similar commission at the federal level. 

“A decade after Colorado pioneered marijuana legalization, Americans overwhelmingly support the same at the federal level,” Hickenlooper said in a statement from the senator’s office. “This bipartisan, bicameral framework, based on Colorado’s Amendment 64 Task Force, will replicate our success nationally.”

Companion Measure To House Bill

Hickenlooper’s legislation is a companion bill to a House version of the measure sponsored by Representative Dave Joyce, a Republican from Ohio.

“I’m thrilled that the PREPARE Act has been introduced in the Senate, making it not only further bipartisan, but bicameral, and bringing it one step closer to becoming law,” said Joyce. “This legislation gives lawmakers on both sides of the aisle the answers they need to effectively engage on cannabis reform, safely and effectively regulate it, and remedy the harms caused by the failed war on cannabis.” 

“With those answers, Congress can develop a much-needed federal regulatory framework that not only respects the unique needs, rights, and laws of each state, but also ensures a responsible end to prohibition and a safer future for our communities,” he continued. “I was proud to lead the introduction of this commonsense bill in the House and thank Senator Hickenlooper for advancing it in the Senate.”

The bill directs the attorney general to establish a “Commission on the Federal Regulation of Cannabis” to advise on the development of a regulatory framework, which would be modeled after existing federal and state regulations for alcohol. The 24-member commission would consist of representatives from relevant government agencies and offices, individuals nominated by Senate and House leadership and individuals nominated by other government agencies.

The legislation requires the plan developed by the commission to account for the unique needs, rights and laws of each state, and directs the commission to present the plan to Congress within one year of enactment of the PREPARE Act. The commission would not have rulemaking authority. The panel’s only role would be to develop proposals and make policy recommendations.

The regulatory framework developed by the commission would be required to include “ways to remedy the disproportionate impact cannabis prohibition has had on minority, low-income and veteran communities; encourage research and training access by medical professionals; encourage economic opportunity for individuals and small businesses; and develop protections for the hemp industry,” according to Hickenlooper’s office.

Growing Support For Cannabis Policy Reform

Hickenlooper’s bill highlights the growing support for cannabis policy reform in the United States. In October, President Joseph Biden announced he would pardon all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession, and last week a new Pew Research poll found that 90% of Americans favor legalizing cannabis in some form.

“President Biden recently—and correctly—declared the federal government’s categorical criminal ban on cannabis a failure and urged executive leadership at the state and federal levels to take concrete steps to bring about rational reform,” Shane Pennington, an attorney with the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, wrote in an email to High Times. “The PREPARE Act seeks to ready the federal government for the far broader reforms, which are now imminent. Undoing decades of inane cannabis laws and regulations will require a coordinated and concerted effort at every level of government and among countless federal agencies. The PREPARE Act would lay the necessary groundwork to ensure that the federal government carries out legalization in a fair, efficient, and effective manner.”

Khadijah Tribble, the CEO of the trade group the US Cannabis Council, said the “Biden administration’s review of cannabis scheduling, midterm ballot measures, and polling on cannabis decriminalization all signal that the end of cannabis prohibition isn’t just inevitable — it’s imminent. The PREPARE Act would help ensure that the federal government has a plan in place to ensure a smooth and responsible transition to legal cannabis.” 

“We commend Sen. Hickenlooper and his counterparts in the House for the forethought and attention reflected in the PREPARE Act’s robust legislative framework, which wisely aims to also address the unjust consequences of the War on Drugs by developing recommendations on social equity and policies that create economic opportunity for minority entrepreneurs who want to operate in the legal marketplace,” she continued. “The US Cannabis Council will continue to work with Congress to help the nation get ready for the day legal cannabis is the law of the land.” 

The PREPARE ACT is supported by a range of stakeholders and cannabis policy reform advocates including the US Cannabis Council (USCC), the City of Denver, the National Hispanic Cannabis Council, Black Cannabis Equity Initiative, VS Strategies, Vicente Sederberg LLP, Metric, National Cannabis Industry Association, and Better Organizing to Win Legalization.

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Ohio Bill Would Allow Record Sealing, Expungement for Paraphernalia Convictions

The Ohio Senate passed Senate Bill 288 on Nov. 30 with a 27-2 vote. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nathan Manning, spoke to the Senate about his goals for this 975-page measure. “We have done a lot of work on this bill. And, really, the goal of this—we talk about criminal justice reform, we talk about tough-on-crime, soft-on-crime—really what we want to do is improve our criminal justice system and lower crime in our society and make our society a safer place,” said Manning. “And to do that, we did a lot of work here.”

Manning explained that “a lot of this bill is long-term, making sure that people that have entered our judicial system exit the judicial system as better people, and to lower recidivism rates, to improve their quality of life and to make sure that we have less victims in the future.”

Among many proposed changes, SB-288 would consider possession of cannabis paraphernalia a minor misdemeanor. “Arrest or conviction for a minor misdemeanor violation of this section does not constitute a criminal record and need not be reported by the person so arrested or convicted in response to any inquiries about the person’s criminal record, including any inquiries contained in any application for employment, license, or other right or privilege, or made in connection with the person’s appearance as a witness,” the current bill text states.

Those who receive a cannabis paraphernalia possession conviction would be allowed to seal their record from the public after six months have passed, and records would be eligible to be expunged after three years. The current draft notes that the application fee would cost “not more than $50.”

SB-288 now heads to the House of Representatives for further consideration. The 134th congressional assembly will end on Dec. 21, and if the bill is not passed in the House and then signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine then it will need to be reintroduced in the next legislative session.

Earlier this year in May, Ohio advocates decided to delay a ballot proposal for adult-use cannabis legalization to 2023. At the time, Republican state officials refused to consider the ballot proposal, so the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol sued them. The organization had already collected 140,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, but the lawsuit settlement will allow them to keep those signatures going into next year.

“We expect that we’ll be able to do it,” Attorney Tom Haren said about the adult-use cannabis effort. “We’ll have staff get ready. Our intention is to give Ohio voters an opportunity to weigh in if the General Assembly continues to ignore them.”

It’s been two years since Ohio legalized medical cannabis, and as of March 2022 the state has collected $725 million in sales revenue. The state allows resident patients to use medical cannabis as a treatment for 22 conditions, but this number may change if the general assembly passes a current proposal if “the patient’s symptoms may reasonably be expected to be relieved from medical marijuana.”

Recently, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order to allow medical cannabis if it has been purchased in a state that has legalized medical cannabis. Although Ohio borders Kentucky, patients would not be legally allowed to buy medical cannabis in Ohio because it only allows residents to purchase cannabis as medicine. Currently, this only leaves Illinois as an option, with Missouri and Virginia to possibly open up later on when their medical cannabis programs take effect.

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Canada Establishes Expert Panel To Review Cannabis Act

Canada Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos announced the panel members on Nov. 24. “The Expert Panel will provide us with an independent, inclusive and evidence-informed review of the Cannabis Act and its economic, social, and environmental impacts, as well as the progress that’s been made displacing the illicit cannabis market,” Duclos said. “We welcome the Expert Panel members and look forward to reviewing their findings to help address the ongoing and emerging needs of Canadians while protecting their health and safety.”

There are a total of five members of the panel who will begin work on the report, with a goal to “engage with the public, governments, Indigenous peoples, youth, marginalized and racialized communities, cannabis industry representatives, and people who access cannabis for medical purposes” regarding the current successes and failures of the current law.

The first panel member is Dr. Oyedeji Ayonrinde, Associate Professor at Queen’s University and consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at Providence Care, which provides mental health care. In the realm of cannabis, Ayonrinde’s peer-reviewed publications explore “gestational cannabis use, cannabis and psychosis, and safety issues with cannabinoid-based medicines.”

The second is Dr. Patricia J. Conrod, a Full Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Addiction at University of Montreal and researcher at Sainte-Justine Mother and Child University Hospital Centre. Conrod co-leads multiple research efforts, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Canadian Cannabis and Psychosis Research Team.

The third is Lynda L. Levesque, a criminal lawyer and member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. Levesque has been serving the communities of Calgary and Toronto since 2015. “Throughout her legal career, she has maintained a passion for Indigenous justice issues and an interest in better ensuring access to justice for marginalized persons,” the government describes.

The fourth is Dr. Peter Selby, Vice Chair of Research and Head of the Mental Health and Addictions Division in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. Selby’s research often focuses on understanding and treating addictive behaviors, which has led him to receive over $100 million in grants from numerous institutes. In total, he has held more than 145 grants as a Principal or Co-Principal Investigator and has taken part in over 150 peer-reviewed publications.

Finally, the panel will be led by Chair Morris Rosenberg, a lawyer and former Deputy of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Minister of Health, and Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada, among other government roles. “It’s my great pleasure to begin working with the members of the Expert Panel. Each member brings a wealth of experience and knowledge, which will be essential as we conduct a thorough, independent review of the Cannabis Act,” Rosenberg said in a press release.

The Cannabis Act has been in place since cannabis sales officially began in Canada in 2018, and requires that the government create a report with recommendations for changes. Now that the panel has been selected, the report can begin to take form through two phases. First, the panel will assess the impacts of the Cannabis Act through online public engagement and analyze trends and evidence. The second phase will include compiling advice to improve or reform the legislative framework. The report does not currently have a deadline, but when it is completed, it will be presented to Parliament of Canada.

According to Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, this panel will help prepare necessary information for the country to evolve as one of just a few countries that have legalized adult-use cannabis. “The Cannabis Act has been instrumental in our efforts to protect youth from accessing cannabis, displacing the illegal market, and providing adult consumers with access to a safe supply of cannabis, but there’s more work to do,” Bennett said in a statement. “We congratulate the new members of the Expert Panel, and look forward to their work assessing our progress in meeting the goals of the Act and guiding our next steps.”

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Police in Sweden Seize Millions in Drugs Outside Capital

In one of Europe’s most intolerant countries when it comes to drug laws, a massive drug operation was dismantled Thursday. It’s the latest move in a series of efforts to curb drug traffic and organized crime in the country.

Swedish police say that on December 1, forces seized around 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of drugs in a city near Stockholm, with a total street value of about 80 million kronor or $7.6 million USD.

Police say that 260 kilograms (573 pounds)—the largest portion of drugs—was amphetamine, and the rest of the types of drugs were not specified.

In Tyreso, south of the Swedish capital Stockholm, three men were arrested on suspicion of serious drug offenses. Police also searched another house at a location in Tyreso where a massive trove of drugs was found in a storage room in an apartment building.

“This is a very large seizure,” Susanne Wikland, deputy chief in the Stockholm city police area, told The Associated Press. Wikland added that it was the result of “aggressive work over a longer period of time,” adding that drug traffic is “large and [expensive] serious organized crime.”

It follows a similar operation last month, when police in Stockholm detained 21 people and seized cocaine and cannabis with an estimated street value of between 50 and 100 million kronor, or $4.8 to $9.6 million USD.

Zero Tolerance for Drugs and Medical Cannabis in Sweden

This is bad news for the men involved, given Sweden’s particularly harsh stance on drugs: Transform Drug Policy Foundation reported that while cannabis and drug laws loosen in Europe—pretty much all around Sweden—the country maintains its zero tolerance policies

“… The degree to which Sweden’s low prevalence of drug use can be attributed to its repressive approach is highly questionable, as research consistently shows that wider social, economic and cultural factors are the key drivers of drug prevalence—not the harshness of enforcement,” Transform Drug Policy Foundation writes.

Some organizations believe Sweden’s zero tolerance policy increases harm. Traveling performers like Drake learned this the hard way. It’s a stark difference from neighboring Denmark, which has experimented in the past with innovations like drug consumption rooms.

The country also isn’t too keen on medical cannabis. A recent study conducted by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden attacked “positive coverage of cannabis” despite what they call poor results. In the study, researchers claimed that medical cannabis was no better for pain relief than a placebo, and suggested that medical cannabis is a myth.

Sweden’s Zero Policy on Drugs Doesn’t Work

But is Sweden’s strict approach to drug use even working? That’s debatable. And moreover, blow is especially popular in the Nordic country.

A study released by national broadcaster SVT found that cocaine in Sweden, over the years, has become more common, cheaper, and more pure. Forbes reports that the number of drug busts in general has increased by almost 300 percent since 2012, mirroring a rise in the number of drug busts by customs. In 2018, Swedish customs seized 485 kg of cocaine, mostly via two major seizures of 298 kg and 98 kg.

The report also reveals the drug has led to more deaths. According to data from the Swedish National Board of Forensic Medicine, cocaine was said to be the cause of death in 20 cases compared to just one a few years ago.

Sweden’s zero tolerance approach on drugs might affect alcohol consumption as well. College students in Sweden also report heavier drinking than U.S. college students, where drug laws have been loosened often.

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Recreational Pot Sales Begin in Rhode Island

Licensed sales of adult-use cannabis began in Rhode Island on Thursday, only six months after Governor Dan McKee signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 and older. Five stores began selling adult-use cannabis on December 1, with more licensed retailers expected to begin business operations in the coming weeks.

The five retailers who launched adult-use cannabis sales on Thursday were all already licensed to sell medical marijuana to patients registered with the state’s medicinal cannabis program. By the end of next month, two additional so-called hybrid retailers will add recreational marijuana sales to their existing medical cannabis operations. 

Last week, the governor marked the impending launch of adult-use cannabis sales as the December 1 launch date approached.

“This milestone is the result of a carefully executed process to ensure that our state’s entry into this emerging market was done in a safe, controlled and equitable manner,” McKee said in a November 22 statement from the governor’s office. “It is also a win for our statewide economy and our strong, locally based cannabis supply chain, which consists of nearly 70 licensed cultivators, processors and manufacturers in addition to our licensed compassion centers. Finally, I thank the leadership of the General Assembly for passing this practical implementation framework in the Rhode Island Cannabis Act and I look forward to continuing our work together on this issue.”

Recreational Marijuana Legalized In May

Matt Santacroce, chief of the Rhode Island Office of Cannabis Regulation and interim deputy director of the Department of Business Regulation, noted the speed with which state regulators had authorized the launch of recreational marijuana sales after McKee signed legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis in May.

“We were pleased with the quality and comprehensiveness of the applications we received from the state’s compassion centers, and we are proud to launch adult use sales in Rhode Island just six months after the Cannabis Act was signed into law, marking the Northeast’s fastest implementation period,” said Santacroce. “We look forward to continuing to work with the state’s cannabis business community to ensure this critical economic sector scales in compliance with the rules and regulations put forward by state regulators.

State officials are not expecting a surge in cannabis use because medical marijuana has been legal since 2006 and recreational cannabis is available in neighboring states. 

“It’s a good opportunity for Rhode Islanders to buy safe, regulated cannabis products in the convenience of their own town or area of the state,” Santacroce told the Boston Globe. “If you are used to going to Massachusetts or wherever, you can save time and gas. We will generate state and local tax revenue that didn’t exist before. And we have the opportunity to capture value in our market, in our industry, in our supply chain. That’s a big deal.”

Under state law, adults are permitted to smoke cannabis wherever tobacco smoking is allowed, unless the use poses potential harm to children. The legislation passed in May also includes provisions to expunge prior cannabis possession offenses no longer illegal under current law.

Taxes On Recreational Weed Total 20%

Taxes on recreational sales include a 10% state cannabis excise tax in addition to the 7% state sales tax, plus an additional 3% local tax for the city or town in which the sale takes place. Taxes on recreational marijuana sales are expected to generate about $15 million in tax revenues in the first full fiscal year of sales. State officials project regulated marijuana sales to generate about $7.5 million in state excise tax revenue, $5.2 million in state sales tax revenue, and $2.2 million in local excise tax revenue.

Cannabis retailer Mother Earth Wellness in Pawtucket opened three hours earlier than its normal 8:00 a.m. opening time to get a jump on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales, and the shop’s first recreational marijuana transaction was rung up at 5:18 a.m. The dispensary saw about 300 customers visit the dispensary by mid-morning, about 80% of whom were recreational buyers.

“We’ve had a very successful day,” Mother Earth Wellness co-owner Joe Pakuris told the Associated Press. “I think it has been a smooth transition and the state has done an excellent job of rolling out this program. Everything’s great.”

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