Grow, Gift, Repair

What “equity” looks like in Massachusetts

The battle is on and the stakes are large: Who will be in the first wave of winners and losers as this retail revolution comes to town? Yesterday’s illegal drug is today’s potentially lucrative business, creating opportunities for local people but also attracting big national companies that some fear are looking to take advantage.

The stories of the three men competing for the first Mattapan Square license offers as good a window as any into the complexities in this shift, which is unfolding rapidly here as it has in nine other states and will perhaps soon in New York and New Jersey where lawmakers are debating legalization efforts that emphasize social equity.

Few feel the tensions of the moment more than the minority entrepreneurs hoping to get in the game. The financial risks are high, as it can take a million dollars or more to finance a new outlet. Credit is hard to come by; most banks want no part of this market while pot remains illegal on the federal level. And thus the temptation is considerable to join forces with one of the big national players seeking to dominate the new trade, even though the price for such backing can be a loss of operational freedom and a nagging fear of being exploited.

In the heart of Mattapan Square, a man collected signatures for a petition on behalf of Tito Jackson, who is seeking to open the commercial district’s first marijuana store.

But, despite those rules, the field remains severely tilted thus far. Of the 15 recreational marijuana stores opened as of early April, not one is run by a minority operator.

Likewise, few, if any, people of color operate any of the dozens of medical marijuana dispensaries established in the last four years in Massachusetts.

The state has even created an “economic empowerment” program that would allow businesses to skip the line for state licenses if they, among other considerations, are helmed by minorities or those who have helped communities with high rates of drug arrests. But out of more than 120 applicants approved for this program, none has opened a marijuana business.

Not that some notable people of color haven’t been recruited as executives for some large multi-state marijuana companies in the Boston area. Former Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral last year became chief executive of Ascend Wellness; former state lawmaker Marie St. Fleur is an executive at Union Twist. Harvest Health & Recreation has brought on Larry Ellison, former president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. And, of course, there is Tito Jackson.