Grow, Gift, Repair

Communities of color need access to the cannabis economy

After issuing more than 70 marijuana establishment licenses to equity, economic empowerment, and disadvantaged business enterprises, only three have been able to open so far.

In 2016, Massachusetts voters passed a landmark ballot question tasking our new agency with creating economic empowerment pathways for communities of color most devastated by the War on Drugs and other systemic inequities. Four years later, lawmakers now have an opportunity to collaborate with us to make that ambitious and just goal a reality by advancing a bill currently being considered by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Since 2017, the Cannabis Control Commission has implemented nation-leading programs and policies aimed at lowering barriers to industry participation and creating equitable access to a regulated marketplace that has historically been weaponized to incarcerate them. However, after issuing more than 70 marijuana establishment licenses to equity, economic empowerment, and disadvantaged business enterprises, only three have been able to open so far.

We take responsibility for not yet reaching our goals, and we continue to adapt our approach to address ongoing challenges. In that vein, we commit to maximizing our impact, but we can’t do it alone.

As the Boston Globe editorial board has recognized, “The major barrier [for marijuana establishment applicants] is money. It doesn’t matter how many programs the state offers to minority entrepreneurs if they can’t get a loan to start a business or can’t get their applications granted before their money runs out.”

That is why we are asking the Legislature to pass S. 2650 and establish a social equity loan fund for license applicants disproportionately harmed by previous marijuana prohibition. Although Massachusetts led the nation for mandating industry participation by individuals harmed by the War on Drugs, we are now lagging jurisdictions such as California and Illinois, which have already committed tens of millions of dollars to similar funds.

In addition to diverting part of the state’s 10.75 percent excise cannabis tax revenue to a loan fund for entrepreneurs, we seek the Baker administration’s support to use existing entrepreneurship and inner-city economic development programs as other vehicles for opportunity. The frameworks to uplift deserving small-business owners already exist; cannabis entrepreneurs just can’t access them yet.

We also support Senator Jason Lewis’s legislation to allow the commission to apply licensing fees and fines to equity training and related initiatives. Doing so would expand the mentorship and educational programming we have already provided to 126 prospective license applicants to thousands more who deserve wraparound services to gain a foothold in a space that was once grounds for their arrest.

A separate, but related area of concern is the ability of cities and towns to execute host-community agreements with license applicants that, when circumventing statutory limits, effectively shut out those the law seeks to encourage. However, Uxbridge, Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge have served as municipal role models for encouraging cannabis equity locally.

Early last year, the full commission requested legislative action to clarify the limits and regulation of those contracts. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative David Rogers, cochairs of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy, advanced a bill, which the House of Representatives built on and then passed, expressly granting Cannabis Commission oversight of the agreements. We hope that the Senate demonstrates its usual leadership by sending legislation to the desk of Governor Charlie Baker, who has expressed his prioritization of equity-related legislation.

Within the industry, some businesses have done their part by launching grant programs and incubators for applicants while others have leveraged legislative loopholes, lawsuits, and lobbyists to attempt to dominate it. Commission research shows that pre-legalization, relative to the Massachusetts population, white residents registered a smaller percentage of cannabis violations when compared with their Black neighbors; post-legalization, a similar trend is already developing, as big-monied and predominantly white business owners open faster than any other applicants. We ask all industry participants to step up and lead by example by contributing their resources and expertise to repairing this harm.

We must work together to fully enact our landmark cannabis economic opportunity law in Massachusetts. We invite all of our colleagues to take ownership of the progress that is possible if we close the gaps holding equity back.