Grow, Gift, Repair

While equity efforts flounder, Massachusetts police make millions off marijuana store traffic details

The legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts was intended to restore wealth to Black and brown communities that for decades were disproportionately targeted by police enforcing the drug’s prohibition.

Yet nearly four years later, in many cities and towns, it is the police who are profiting.

In Northampton, New England Treatment Access has paid law enforcement officers $1.1 million in additional salary to work traffic details outside the marijuana store it opened there in November 2018, according to figures provided by Police Chief Jody Kasper. The department itself took in another $112,500 in administrative and cruiser fees related to the details.

In Brookline, where it has another dispensary, NETA has paid local officers $1.58 million in overtime since beginning medical marijuana sales in 2016, thanks in part to a town requirement that at least one police detail be present whenever the dispensary is open; about $950,000 of the total came after NETA started selling recreational pot in March 2019.

The town itself has raked in about $158,400 in administrative surcharges on the details, and plans to allocate another $435,000 in separate fees paid by NETA toward its police department this fiscal year, some of it toward officer health care costs.

Police officers in the two communities are hardly alone in their windfall: Across Massachusetts, marijuana companies complain that local officials frequently require (or pressure) them to spend large sums on traffic details that are unnecessary, intimidating, or both.

While municipalities say the details help manage increased crowds and traffic around marijuana stores, critics say they amount to little more than a cash grab. That’s because in nearly every case, police details are paid directly from the pockets of marijuana operators — on top of separate “community impact fees” worth 3 percent of each company’s annual revenue that are paid to their host municipalities and ostensibly designated to offset the cost of increased traffic and other consequences of hosting the marijuana facility. (Local officials counter that traffic details are not a cost borne by municipalities, but an hourly service companies hire directly.)

Worse, the critics argue, the payments are a perversion of a marijuana law designed to benefit those hit hardest by racist policing practices — a stance resonating at a time of widespread protests calling for reduced police funding and increased investment in vulnerable communities.

“I’m deeply disturbed,” said Shaleen Title, a member of the state Cannabis Control Commission. “State and local leaders have a historic opportunity to answer a national movement seeking racial justice, but most seem content to let police take home millions of dollars in questionable payments and tax revenue while shrugging at the racial justice mandates in the same law.

“How long are communities of color expected to wait for the opportunities we promised them?”

Commission policies are meant to provide a leg up for people and communities most affected by the drug war. But so far, larger investor-backed concerns have dominated: Just three of the dozens of marijuana facilities that have opened around Massachusetts are owned by participants in the cannabis commission’s social equity and economic empowerment programs or designated by the state as a “disadvantaged business enterprise.”

Meanwhile, the cannabis commission’s annual budget for its statewide social equity training and technical assistance program is just $300,000 — a fraction of the legal marijuana spoils hauled in by Massachusetts police officers from NETA alone, and a sum so low the program’s director quit in protest last month.

“Equity applicants are still not receiving the actual aid they need,” said Shekia Scott, the former director. “I wasn’t supported and the proper resources were never given to it. It’s ridiculous that the police are profiting more off this than anyone, especially those disproportionately impacted by prohibition.”

In a statement, a commission spokesman said other aspects of the agency’s budget indirectly support its equity mission, and that officials have been “diligent in developing and implementing policies and procedures to effectuate an equitable industry.”

Adding to the frustration of advocates, the state Legislature appears poised to rebuff a push to pass long-stalled bills that would address some of the biggest obstacles facing disenfranchised entrepreneurs, including one creating a no-interest loan fund for equity applicants.

Instead, House lawmakers last week approved a police accountability bill that would tap a $109 million fund filled by state marijuana taxes and fees to retrain officers. While the state’s marijuana law calls for some cannabis revenue to go to police training, the provision was met with backlash from progressive legislators, who noted the law also mandates funding of restorative justice efforts. A Globe analysis in February found that Massachusetts has so far only used marijuana revenue to fund the commission and existing addiction treatment programs.

An amendment to the police bill proposed by state Representative Liz Miranda of Boston that would have mandated equal or greater spending on equity efforts compared with police training failed to draw enough support.

“The fact that there’s only one Black-owned cannabis business right now makes it clear we haven’t done our part as legislators,” Miranda said in an interview, referring to the Pure Oasis marijuana store in Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood.

Another reform sought by advocates, currently stalled in the state Senate despite an endorsement from the cannabis commission, would crack down on municipal demands for large payments under the auspices of so-called “host community agreements.”

Under current state law, municipalities must document the actual costs incurred by local marijuana firms and only charge them a “reasonably related” community impact fee.

With no apparent enforcement of those limits, however, most cities and towns simply charge the maximum 3 percent fee allowed by law (or even more) and retain broad discretion in how they use the funds.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz defended the requirement that NETA pay its $1.2 million police detail bill separately from the $2.6 million it has paid in impact fees, saying the city did not formally require NETA to hire details and that other “high-traffic businesses” such as construction contractors also voluntarily do so.

“Because [the details] are not a cost borne by the city, we would not utilize community impact fees to offset them,” Narkewicz said, adding that another, newer dispensary that recently opened in the city has not hired details because it is in an area with better parking and traffic flow.

Northampton has used about $1 million of the fee money to improve roads, bike paths, and other infrastructure near NETA, Narkewicz said, while the rest is held in a dedicated mitigation fund. The city has also earned a further $2.6 million through a 3 percent local sales tax on recreational marijuana.

NETA chief executive Amanda Rositano said her firm hired the Northampton details because private workers in Massachusetts cannot direct traffic on public roads. In Brookline, details are mandated by the town, though NETA doesn’t always agree they are needed.

“There’s an overabundance of caution that’s [around] the cannabis industry, and I don’t think it’s always necessary,” Rositano said. “We are looking to minimize the police presence at our sites.”

Brookline spokesman Jordan Mayblum said NETA and the town had mutually agreed to the detail requirement. Regarding the $435,000 in impact fee money that will be allocated to the town’s police department, he said local officials are “enabled to use [the funds] to serve the community at large.”

Industry leaders agree that local requirements to hire police details, especially when a marijuana store first opens, are nearly ubiquitous, even if the sums paid by NETA are unusually large.

For example, cannabis firm Cultivate paid Leicester $60,000 for details and related fees (separate from its annual $250,000 impact payment), while Garden Remedies said it has paid a total of nearly $240,000 for police details at its dispensaries in Marlborough, Melrose, and Newton.

Leicester Town Administrator David Genereux said that if details were paid for out of Cultivate’s impact fee, the company “could just ask for details anytime, even if they were not needed, just to use up the money.” Detail payments, he added, represent a “charge for services rendered,” and are not technically part of “the cost of having a facility in the community.”

In some cases, detail payments directly detract from equity efforts. Brandon Pollock, the chief executive of cannabis operator Theory Wellness, said his company’s accelerator program for equity applicants could have sponsored two entrepreneurs instead of just one with the more than $100,000 it spent on police details at its shops in Great Barrington and Chicopee.

“If a local police department wants to have details there and feels it’s the right thing, I can’t refute their professional opinion, but that’s what the [community impact fee] money should be for,” he said.

Marijuana operators also argued that the presence of armed officers can be jarring to cannabis consumers and medical marijuana patients, who may have had run-ins with the police over the drug when it was illegal. That concern is particularly acute in Black communities.

“It pained us to have a detail,” said Kobie Evans, co-owner of Pure Oasis, who claimed his “hands were tied” when his shop hired a police detail after its opening in March (though the city denies requiring one).

“We had hired all this staff to mitigate the lines, because we trying to guard against the expense and because so many people in this community have been scarred by their by their dealings with the police.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “details happen whether you want it or not. That is the cost of doing business.”