Grow, Gift, Repair

Diversity a huge issue in Massachusetts

“Let’s not talk lightly about this [expletive],” said Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney, who is the first woman and the second person of color to hold the job. “These are convictions black and brown people (had) years ago. And now everyone making money from cannabis is white. It is a racial disparity, it is disgusting, and we need to speak out loudly about it.”

The latest state numbers, published on March 7, show only 2.3 percent of the 305 completed applications for recreational cannabis licenses were from minority applicants. Of the 2,693 people working in the industry, only 4.1 percent are black and 6 percent Hispanic.

Rollins said that in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop, her office would not be prosecuting cases for drug possession. Statistically, black and Latinx defendants are four to five times more likely to have a negative outcome from a drug charge than a white defendant, she said. “I don’t get to tell (Boston Police) Commissioner (William) Gross that I’d like you to do the following for cannabis. I can say you can keep arresting people, but we’re not prosecuting.”

Aja N. Atwood, CEO and co-founder of cannabis agriculture company Trella Technologies, said minorities may be hesitant to become involved in the market, given the stigma those groups faced regarding cannabis use and arrests in the past. She compared the phenomenon to how racist caricatures of African Americans caused minorities to move away from the lucrative business of watermelon farming.

But even for people interested in entering the market, there are a host of hurdles, Atwood said. Even Trella was struggling to gain permission from Mashpee to grow cannabis to test her product, which helps the plant grow horizontally for a better yield.

“The allowance of having towns make those decisions create disadvantages depending on where you live,” Atwood said.

The state is trying to level the playing field. Shaleen Title, one of five members on the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, said most of the country was looking to Massachusetts as a leader in lowering the barriers to entry for minority applicants. Massachusetts has sought to offer technical assistance, fee waivers, and initial exclusive access to certain types of licenses for groups deemed equity applicants by the state.