There’s a well worn civics class saw that the 50 states are 50 laboratories of democracy. Look no further than Grown In’s coverage area, where there’s a ton of bubbling labs of cannabis rules:

10 limited license systems and five unlimited license systems in the New England, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. Some states do not have limits in the statutes but instead charge regulators with deciding the outcome. Other states with unlimited licenses leave it up to localities to figure the rest out.

And some states cannabis laws are just plain limited, the law states the number of cannabis dispensaries, processors, and manufacturers allowed.  One state, Missouri, actually put in its constitution a minimum number of licenses allowed, and regulators have gone beyond that minimum. 

To better understand how each state works, we contacted regulators and local experts to explain how states dole out cannabis licenses.

Vermont

Vermont’s medical program previously had license caps based on annual patient numbers benchmarks, said partners at Vermont Cannabis Solutions Tim Fair and Andrew Subin.

“Due to a multitude of factors, our medical program never really took off and never exceeded 5,000 [patients]. Many of those benchmarks were never met. However, our medical program is now being completely revamped,” Fair said. “Everything is changing now as of 2022, all of our rules change, and we are now in an unlimited license situation.”

However, there are organic factors that limit the amount of licenses issued. 

“For retail, specifically, we have an opt-in provision where towns need to permanently opt into cannabis retail. So that limits the challenge which a dispensary can open up to those towns that have opted in, which at this point is approximately 65 out of 240,” Fair said. 

“Another factor that limits the number of licenses overall is that we do have a limit of one license of each category per person or per business. A business can get one cultivation license, but they can't have more than one. A business can get a cultivation license and a retail license, but they can only have one of these,” Subin said.

But what’s to stop Vermont from becoming the wild west of cannabis? 

“Vermont in particular has taken a very unique approach,” Fair said. “We are very much focused on a small craft market. We have a lot of 1,000 square foot craft cultivation licenses; we have smaller manufacturing licenses available. The entire framework is suited for small entrepreneurs and small businesses. There's some very good parts to that but [the] kind of drawback to that is we don't have well capitalized companies.” 

“A lot of people talk about unlimited licenses like in Oklahoma causing a huge amount of surplus supply. Because we are so focused on 1,000 square foot and 500 square foot facilities here, which don't even register on the radar and it's gonna be very interesting to see a roll out of an unlimited amount of small cultivation,” Fair said. 

And there are obvious reasons to avoid limited licenses, Fair and Subin argued. 

“If it was limited to say 50 retail licenses for the state, some of the companies that have better resources are going to be able to obtain those licenses in a competitive environment. Here, our statute says all qualified applicants shall receive a license and so you don't have to worry about the other guy you're not in a competition to prove that you're better than he or she is. And if you can find a location that is qualified, you shall receive a license,” Subin said. 

Maine

In Maine, there’s no cap on the adult use nor medical cannabis programs. But the state did leave the decisions to opt-in to municipalities through affirmative action, said Matthew Hawes, vice president of the Maine Cannabis Industry and CEO of Novel Beverage. 

“That requires either an amendment to the charter or a new ordinance to be passed. Of course, many municipalities in Maine have not done that,” Hawes said. “The municipalities that do pass it, typically include some sort of zoning around it. Then zoning is the other kind of natural cap setter because there's only so much property that you can occupy.”

There are pros and cons to Maine’s model, he said. 

“The free market is to the advantage of the consumer and access. The downside to what is called an opt in program is that it does leave these big widespread areas where there is no presence, so access there is still very much zero for people, particularly people with limited mobility. Fortunately, the state did pass a law this last legislative session to allow delivery to all areas of even the municipalities that have not opted in. So that should increase the access substantially,” Hawes said. 

Massachusetts

Massachusetts’ adult use program does not have limited licensing in their statute, but there are limitations on the local level, also, said Brandon Kurtzman, a partner at Vicente Sederberg LLP.

“There was a mix of how different municipalities approached it,” Kurtzman said. “When the law was passed, municipalities were allowed to ban retail completely. If they didn't ban it, through zoning, they could limit the number of retail licenses to 20% of the number of liquor stores that were licensed in that municipality.”

“Because they're limited, it often becomes much more competitive. And the competition often favors the groups that have better funding,” Kurtzman said. 

For Massachusetts’ medical program, licenses are uncapped but must be vertical.

“Once adult use passed in Massachusetts, the medical licenses weren't as popular anymore,” Kurtzman said. 

Should municipalities have the right to limit or reject cannabis? John Bradley, a partner at Prince Lobel thinks yes. 

“Absolutely. It was pretty much insisted upon to get the votes through. Well, certainly it was insisted upon to get through the votes through the legislature when it came up. But even before then, when it was on the ballot everyone knew and understood what was being offered. And absent that is like it likely would not have passed,” Bradley said. “I think if it was presented now without the local governance piece, it would still be dicey as to whether it would pass, but it's much more likely now that it would then it would then it would not.”

Connecticut

Connecticut’s plan allows for medical producers and dispensaries to apply to convert to a hybrid business, said Kaitlyn Krasselt, communications director of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection.

“We do not have plans to issue additional medical-only licenses,” she said. “There is no limit to the number of licenses issued through the adult-use program, including for hybrid retailers, which would serve both markets.”

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, the statutes limit licenses to nine compassion centers, according to Elizabeth Beaven, an administrative officer for the state’s Office of Cannabis Regulation. No more applications for cultivators are to be accepted, she added. 

Missouri

In Missouri, Dan Viets, Secretary of the National Board of Directors of NORML and a leader of the state’s 2018 effort to legalize medical use, said the Missouri medical program is not limited by the Missouri constitution.

“The law which established our medical program, Article XIV of the MO Constitution, mandates a minimum number of business licenses but no maximum. The [Missouri] DHSS has chosen to limit the number of business licenses, for now, but they or the legislature or the governor could increase the number at any time,” Viets said. 

“Some of the licensees have not actually gotten up and running,” Viets said, adding that “they've actually gone above a little bit above the minimum.” 

The arguments for limiting licenses are that it might result in “a marijuana store on every street corner,” Viets said. 

“I'm not necessarily saying I agree with this,” he said. “Some people don't want to see that and they think that's objectionable for whatever reason. Some other people clearly are concerned about competition. Once they get a license, some people say they don't want everybody else to get a license too. Of course, if you're in business, you want to minimize competition.” 

“But the reasons to grant more licenses are that this is America. We believe in the capitalist system. Competition is good for everybody. Competition brings out the best in businesses, the most efficient and the ones who serve customers needs the best tend to survive and thrive – and those who don't tend to fall by the wayside,” Viets said. 

Ohio

Ohio’s medical program is limited by regulators, who have been charged with determining the appropriate number of licenses according to the law.  

For cultivators and processors, additional licenses have been awarded as a result of appeals processes, bringing Ohio’s current license number totals to 37 cultivators and 46 processors, according to Jennifer Jarrell, deputy chief communications officer at Ohio Department of Commerce. The state also has 58 dispensary licenses, and just announced winners of another 73 dispensary licenses.

There’s no limit in statute or rule on the number of testing laboratory licenses, she added. 

Michigan

Michigan, which has medical and adult use programs, does not limit licenses at a state level.

However, “the MMFLA and MRTMA give municipalities the authority to completely prohibit or limit the number of marijuana businesses within their jurisdiction,” said David Harns, public relations manager of Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency.

Illinois

In Illinois, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act limits regulators to issuing no more than 500 adult use dispensaries, according to Chris Slaby, the public information officer for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. 

“Per the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Program Act, IDFPR may issue up to 60 medical dispensing organization registrations for operation. In addition, the Illinois Department of Agriculture may issue up to 22 medical cultivation center licenses, 30 adult use cultivation center licenses, and 150 craft grower licenses. The CRTA does not limit the number of transporter or infuser licenses IDOA may issue,” he said. 

In Maryland and Pennsylvania, licenses are limited by statute. 

Maryland, which only has a medical program, limits licenses to 22 growers, 28 processors, and 101 dispensaries, according to a spokesperson. The Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana program is also limited by statute to 25 growers and processors, and an initial 50 dispensary licenses.

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Cynthia Fernandez is a data reporter for Grown In. Previously, she was a politics reporter for Spotlight PA, a nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg and reported at the Boston Globe. In 2019 she graduated...