Grow, Gift, Repair

Minority applicant questions pot shop approval process in Brockton

The KG Collective got a host community agreement last year. But it didn’t do much good for the minority-owned business seeking to open a retail pot shop in the city. All of the city’s eight retail marijuana licenses were already taken by the time the applicant came to City Hall as part of the permitting process.

BROCKTON – A minority-owned business seeking a permit to sell marijuana in Brockton said it’s been given the runaround.

Last September, former mayor Moises Rodrigues reopened the door for minority applicants seeking to become a part of the emerging legalized marijuana retail industry in Brockton, providing five host community agreements to people of color who were left out of the process, including several who were part of the state’s social equity programs aimed at assisting applicants from communities that have been most harmed in the past due to the war on drugs.

Rodrigues said the decision was a correction after the previous mayor, Bill Carpenter, quietly issued 10 host community agreements in 2018 and early 2019, without any formal publicized application process. None of those 10 host community agreements went to people of color, with the exception of one Indian businessman, and some of the agreements were provided to allies and campaign supporters.

Now minority-owned companies like the KG Collective, headed by Michael Pires and Marcus Johnson-Smith, are facing a brick wall. The host community agreement gave them a chance to pursue a license, but by the time they were able to come to City Hall for approval, it was already too late.

City Council recently awarded the final six of a total of eight marijuana retail licenses in the city, which is the limit based on the ordinance passed in 2019 by City Council. Only one of those licenses went to a minority applicant that received a host community agreement under Rodrigues, a company called Legal Greens headed by 29-year-old Black entrepreneur Vanessa Jean-Baptiste. Two retail licenses were already grandfathered to preexisting medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. The rest of those six licenses went to applicants who received host community agreements under Carpenter, who died while in office in July last year.

“I would say the whole process has been challenging to say the least,” said Pires, who is Cape Verdean, reached by phone recently. “Those who were given host community agreements before us were given an unfair advantage. They had a head start. We didn’t have the opportunity to apply as soon as they had the opportunity to apply. That was an unfair advantage to begin with.”

Johnson-Smith was more critical of City Hall, stating that the Zoning Board of Appeals recently denied their application for a special permit before it ever got to City Council for final approval. The KG Collective, which is an economic empowerment applicant through the the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, is trying to establish its pot shop at the Miko’s Breakfast Cafe property at 912 Crescent St. on the east side of the city. Johnson-Smith said the meeting on July 14 represented a “procedural error” since the ZBA voted to deny their application for being insufficient, yet the application form from the city states that “only completed applications will be assigned a hearing date.”

“We don’t understand why we were denied based on the grounds of not having certain documents included for the hearing,” said Johnson-Smith, who is African American. “We felt we provided all the documents because, frankly, we were given a hearing date.”

Craig Pina, who sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals, said the KG Collective’s application packet didn’t meet the standard met by other applicants. Kenneth Galligan, chairman of the board, said during the meeting that the group’s security plan was insufficient because it only showed a schematic of security cameras, without any other information about how the cash-heavy business would be protected from robberies and other crime.

“We have no idea what the security plan is,” Galligan said.

“There was no explanation of where the secure area for deliveries was, or the disposal of waste,” Pina said later. ”(The meeting) was very fair. We simply expected them to be as prepared as every other applicant for a dispensary.”

Pina said the group can return to the ZBA at a future date with a complete application.

But two days after the initial ZBA meeting, City Council moved to grant city retail pot shop licenses to six groups, approving five of them that night and another at a meeting held later in the month. So what’s the point of going forward with the process at this point?

Pires and Johnson-Smith said despite the lack of remaining city permits, the KG Collective is going to keep trying to establish a retail pot shop in Brockton. Johnson-Smith said the KG Collective is also pursuing a retail pot shop license in Cambridge. The company was started by Pires and Johnson-Smith, who grew up as friends together in Cambridge, as a cannabis lifestyle brand about 10 years ago, promoting its apparel at marijuana festivals in Boston, before opening a “Kush Groove” smoke shop in Mission Hill in 2015 and another in Cambridge in March this year.

“We’re so deep into it,” Pires said. “We have no choice to keep trying. We deserve a license as much as anyone else. We hope the new mayor does right by treating prospective applicants fairly. I feel like we deserve a chance as much as these other individuals.”

The Enterprise reached out for comment from Mayor Robert Sullivan for this story but did not get a response in time for deadline.

Rodrigues, a councilor-at-large who was appointed mayor for six months last year following the death of Carpenter, said he would be open to changing the city ordinance to allow for more retail marijuana store licenses in the city.

“I would be open to allowing one more in the downtown,” Rodrigues said.

So what was the point of providing host agreements to five minority applicants if so few of them would be able to get a license from a practical standpoint? Rodrigues said his efforts resulted in at least one Black-owned business getting licensed, Legal Greens owned by Jean-Baptiste.

“At least what I did is diversify the pool,” Rodrigues said. “Then they at least have an opportunity to compete. Before, they wouldn’t have one, and Vanessa wouldn’t have ever gotten one.”

Pires said he and Johnson-Smith are pursuing a retail marijuana license in Brockton not just because it could be a very profitable business opportunity. Pires said he and his business partner have had a passion for the emerging marijuana industry, even before it was legalized first for medicinal purposes by a statewide vote in 2012, promoting their cannabis lifestyle brand at the annual Boston Freedom Rally.

“We were part of this industry when it was underground,” Pires said. “We were the faces of cannabis enthusiasts. A lot of these other individuals pursuing this only became interested when they realized it was a very lucrative industry.”

Johnson-Smith said the city could be doing more to support people of color who want to be part of the legalized marijuana industry. He called the city’s process for retail marijuana permitting “dysfunctional,” adding that the city hasn’t told them to stop pursuing a retail marijuana license after all eight were awarded by City Council already.

“There’s been a lot of dysfunction with this process in Brockton,” he said. “I don’t know any other way to characterize it. Do I think the city of Brockton could do more to assist people of color? Absolutely. Other cities have done so in my experience.”