As the year winds into its final months, topics such as COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter continue to permeate both our minds and the news cycle. Quietly passing us by, however, are stories that, while not as widely reported, are just as impactful to their own communities. One such story takes place here in Brookline.
The Racial Equity Advancement Fund (REAF) seeks to financially empower African American and Latinx populations in Brookline who may have been adversely affected by the War on Drugs. The REAF will draw from taxes on marijuana dispensary revenue and will be handled by both the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (ODICR) and Commission for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (CDICR).
Brookline Select Board created the fund after Town Meeting passed Warrant Article 29 in late 2019. The Warrant Article was formatted as a resolution outlining the popular desire for the Select Board to put forth the REAF.
Per Warrant Article 29, the Select Board created a system to fairly distribute aid to those who need it. While the fund was originally set for completion in May 2020, delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic have moved the timeline to sometime in November of this year.
The Town of Brookline is among the first to attempt a program like this, and as it seeks to resolve racial conflicts and divisions created by federal drug policies, they carry tremendous weight and complexity. African American men have significantly higher incarceration rates for drug-related crimes than their white counterparts, even as legislation to legalize marijuana rolls out across the nation.
Because of this history of discrimination, CDICR member and Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) Coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne said it is important to pursue social justice in the spirit of making amends in this era.
“I would be really remiss to think is going to mend the decades of rounding up Black and brown males, and the traumatic effects upon children, elderly women and families. I don’t think it’s going to do that in any way, shape or form,” Cawthorne said. “But I think if we can do this right, it can really send a message that, as a community, we’re recognizing our past and trying to move forward together.”
The REAF would provide financial aid to Black and Latinx populations in Brookline who have been adversely affected by previous marijuana policies. It also offers grants to any minorities seeking to open their own dispensary in Brookline
According to Select Board Member Raul Fernandez, the REAF planned to utilize up to 35 percent of the Mitigation Fund in order to finance this project. The Mitigation Fund itself comes from taxed dispensary revenue, dispensaries such as New England Treatment Access (NETA) and Sanctuary Medicinals.
However, choosing a source from which to appropriate funds is not cut-and-dry, as state and local laws stipulate exactly what money a town can and cannot use for aid. A co-author of Warrant Article 29, Fernandez said that use of the Mitigation Fund was motivated by its reliability.
“We can’t control , but the thing we can control is the taxed mitigation funds we get from them. Then, we can control what happens with that money, and we know that that money is going to be there, regardless of who owns the shop,” Fernandez said.
However, the money from dispensary revenue taxes may not actually be usable for REAF’s purposes, according to the Host Community Agreement (HCA). An HCA, formed between a town and its dispensaries, sets guidelines for the dispensaries’ operation. The agreement outlines very specific uses for the taxed money, most notably to repair any damages or impacts incurred by dispensaries.
Due to this potential issue, the final resolution passed at Town Meeting last year requests that the Local Options Tax, a separate 3 percent tax levied on all local businesses, be the source of the project’s funding. Considering that the town administers and controls this tax, they could direct it towards anything deemed pertinent, including the REAF.
Since the Select Board decides how to implement the resolution, they have instead elected to try to use the Mitigation Fund despite its possible challenges. This choice entails communication with the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and is pending approval, so there remains the possibility that it won’t be cleared. However, Fernandez is confident in the decision.
“What we’ve been working on is communicating with the Cannabis Control Commission and trying to get resolution as to whether or not we can use the mitigation funds like this. The Town Administrator thinks we can and I want to be supportive of that,” Fernandez said.
However, the main problems with how this money will be handled arise from the manner with which it is distributed. Jasiel F. Correia II is the former mayor of Fall River, Mass. Correia was charged in 2019 for wire fraud, filing false tax returns and accepting bribes in exchange for licenses to operate marijuana dispensaries.
Original practitioner of Warrant Article 29 and co-author of the REAF, Donelle O’Neall Sr. said that because of this history of corruption, Brookline must discover how to avoid unethical distribution practices in their own program.
In 2017 Massachusetts passed Session Law Chapter 55 (An Act To Ensure Safe Access To Marijuana), which outlined several regulations and expectations for marijuana dispensaries, as well as an HCA to be worked out between municipalities and their local dispensaries.
Section 40 of the Act is particularly salient because it describes how the state is obligated to use money drawn from taxed dispensary revenue to fund programs for “restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development, industry specific technical assistance and mentoring services for economically-disadvantaged persons in communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for marijuana offenses.”
The Act also created a commission to handle related funds, dubbed the Cannabis Control Commission. Co-author of the Act and Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title said that the Act intended to give municipalities flexibility to make their own local marijuana industry.
“The intent of the law was to allow municipalities to do what was right for them. So if the residents of a town or city are seeking to ban dispensaries all together, they can do that. If they want to encourage certain types of businesses like small local businesses or farmers, they can do that,” Title said.
Given that leniency, townships and cities are not legally obligated to follow Massachusetts’s footsteps in seeking equity or involvement in the industry. Therefore, local laws rely on advocates, such as Brookline’s Donelle O’Neall Sr., to garner support.
“I had a feeling that was going to go recreational. I didn’t want anyone to miss out, everyone who’s been hurt and could use money or a grant of some sort to get them caught up in the race of life. So I asked certain people on the what should I do? My first attempt, shortly after, was the Warrant Article,” O’Neall said.
According to O’Neall, the REAF began as the Economic Equity Advancement Fund and mandated a new and isolated tax on marijuana dispensaries.
Due to the state and local taxes already imposed on dispensaries, adding another tax would have tested the limits of the law, Fernandez said. Currently, dispensaries pay 6 percent of revenue made off local sales to the town via the Mitigation Fund and Local Options Tax. Coupled with the state tax they already pay, another local tax would have most likely faced tremendous opposition, and would have required clearance at the state and even federal level.
Fernandez cited these issues, which would make creating a new tax inefficient and not strictly legal, as the reason for switching to the Mitigation Fund.
Another change was the switch from a standard Warrant Article to a resolution, meaning the original bill would have been a law if it had cleared Town Meeting. O’Neall attributed these various changes to the partnership between himself and Fernandez throughout the fund’s creation.
“I ended up asking for help, and I got Raul to co-petition with me. We had to change the language, including the name from Economic Equity to Racial Equity, but with his help, we were able to really push it through,” O’Neall said.
REAF’s original timeline had distribution decisions slated for May 2020, but due to COVID-19, cancellations and delays have led to a predicted deadline of November 2020.
While the main issues may have been smoothed over, small kinks and minor details remain. Though the Select Board has seen the resolution, the final decisions on distribution fall to both the ODICR and CDICR.
Cawthorne said that he hopes the pandemic will not divert attention away from the initiative.
“I think we should all be a little bit worried, particularly folks of color, that this Warrant Article might be forgotten. As such, we should continue to hold pressure to the government to do their job around this Warrant Article,” Cawthorne said.
The need for a commission to distribute these funds relates back to the incident in Fall River and the dangers of unregulated social justice programs. Subsequently, the exact implementation of distribution is a complicated subject, and O’Neill said he thinks the final plan will take time.
Even so, details surrounding the security of the funds in question seem to have been fleshed out. While the Town Administrator Mel Kleckner petitions the state for the usage of the Mitigation Fund, a plan to create a stabilization fund is already in full swing.
According to Fernandez, this Stabilization Fund would house a large portion of the appropriated money from the Mitigation Fund. Thus, it would be an isolated resource, solely for use in the programs and persons that the ODICR and CDICR decide to lend aid to in November.
“So said we would pull the mitigation funds, and then create what’s called a Stabilization Fund, where essentially it would live,” Fernandez said. “Then we could take a certain percentage of that, potentially up to 35 percent, and use that for racial equity advancement programs. That’s where we are now.”