HOLYOKE — When the Cannabis Control Commission was crafting the framework for the state’s legal marijuana market in 2017, some farmers pushed for regulations that would support cannabis cooperatives that would allow smaller-scale farmers to participate in the industry.
Nearly four years later, only one such cooperatives have been licensed in western Massachusetts. And one company hopes to bring this model to Holyoke.
Last month, the Holyoke City Council approved a special permit for the Mass Cannabis Growers Cooperative to operate at 11 Jackson St. in South Holyoke. If approved for a state license, the company would allow 26 growers to buy into the cooperative, by putting up $10,000, to run their own 500-square-foot grow room within the 22,000-square-foot facility.
“It’s for bringing in a brand new type of grower, it’s for lowering the barrier of entry,” said Brandon Gates, the company’s 38-year-old CEO.
According to data from the Cannabis Control Commission, only one craft marijuana cooperative holds an approved license from the state: Roaring Glen Farms in Conway, which has received a provisional license. Mass Cannabis Growers Cooperative and three other craft marijuana cooperatives have applications pending before the state.
Though Gates said that $10,000 is still a lot of money for many, it is far less than the kind of capital needed to start other operations. Co-op members will gross 80% of what they make wholesaling their cannabis to retailers or other businesses that manufacture marijuana products, with the remaining 20% going toward running the cooperative and costs like security and state-mandated tracking of all marijuana plants, Gates said.
Gates, who grew up in Northampton and Connecticut, has spent years working in the marijuana industry in California and Washington state. He said that it was there that he got the idea for starting a cooperative. He said the regulations in Massachusetts, coupled with the demand and taste customers have in the state, convinced him to do so here.
“There are very few communities that are as discerning,” he said.
Co-op members will be able to draw from the genetic library of plants that Gates has put together over the years.
The cooperative will follow guidelines set out by the International Co-operative Alliance, the international federation whose U.S. members include Land O’Lakes Venture37 and National Co+op Grocers, according to its website.
David Mager, the company’s president and a Hatfield resident, said that to this point large companies have been able to profit off the Massachusetts marijuana industry, squeezing out smaller players in the process. Millionaires own everything and ordinary people earn small wages, he said. The idea behind the cooperative is to push back against the idea that “Weed Mart” should be winning in the state’s cannabis industry, he added.
“We have so many people in this state who have been growers but have never been able to monetize it to earn a living unless they violated the law,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity for somebody who’s a master craft grower to earn a really great living from this.”
Mass Cannabis Growers Cooperative has signed a lease for its building with an option to purchase within 10 years. And as the cooperative begins organizing itself, Mager said that it intends to offer one free membership, by lottery, to a Holyoke resident whose life was adversely impacted by the so-called War on Drugs.
Gates said that the cooperative is a family affair — his mother and wife are listed on corporate documents as fellow managers in the business. He also noted that the cannabis investor Barbara Koz Paley — a real estate and fine art investor — is part of the cooperative’s advisory board and has helped secure preliminary sales agreements with dispensaries.
Mass Cannabis Growers Cooperative will still need to secure its license from the state. But that’s a process that Gates said he’s confident it will complete.
“It’s a daunting process I feel like I was made for,” he said.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.