Grow, Gift, Repair

Regulators, advocates press Legislature to follow through on promise of marijuana equity

State is falling short of legal obligations, coalition warns

Suddenly, equity is on the lips of politicians across the country as lawmakers scramble to respond to a historic national movement seeking racial justice and fairness.

But in Massachusetts, one industry was always supposed to be equitable: the legal marijuana business, created by voters in 2016 after an unsuccessful century-long “war” on the drug that disproportionately targeted Black people.

Under state law, those from communities hit hardest by cannabis prohibition are supposed to be given priority for licenses to grow, process, and sell marijuana. Four years later, however, that dream of fairness remains largely unrealized, with corporate operators dominating the state’s recreational pot market as smaller players struggle to raise money, meet onerous regulations, and navigate the meandering local-approval process.

Now, a coalition of state cannabis regulators and advocates is pressuring the Legislature to follow through on its promise and pass bills that would make the legal cannabis industry more accessible to small, local businesses and entrepreneurs of color — before the formal legislative session ends July 31.

“At this inflection point in our history, we are forced to reckon with the guilt of past injustices,” Segun Idowu, of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said at a virtual rally Thursday, which advocates organized along with Cannabis Control Commission members Steve Hoffman and Shaleen Title.

“We refuse to also allow this new industry be built on our backs,” Idowu added. “If Black lives matter, so does Black wealth, and so do Black entrepreneurs. We’re not asking for handouts — we’re demanding justice and equal access to opportunities.”

The coalition is pushing four bills, all languishing in various committees.

The headline proposal would direct some of the fines, fees, and taxes derived from the marijuana industry into no-interest loans for participants in the commission’s social equity and economic empowerment programs. Because cannabis remains illegal under US law, federally regulated banks almost never make loans to marijuana companies, giving a significant edge to the wealthy and well-connected.

“No-interest loans would go a huge way in helping me get more vehicles, helping me get more employees, and really just growing my businesses as a whole,” said Devin Alexander, a social equity applicant who plans to open a marijuana delivery business.

Another bill would give the cannabis commission oversight of the notorious “host community agreements” that applicants must sign with the city or town in which they hope to operate, and impose a firm cap on the large payments frequently demanded by municipal officials in exchange for local approval.

Current law nominally limits the value of such contracts to 3 percent of a company’s annual revenue, but local governments argue the language doesn’t ban the additional fees and “donations” they often seek. Potential corruption around the deals and a scandal in Fall River have prompted an ongoing federal investigation.

License applicants who participated in Thursday’s virtual rally said they had essentially been shaken down by cities and towns, or had their approval withheld by a single local elected official.