In Massachusetts, ‘Local Buy-In’ Leaves Equity Candidates Outside, Waiting

I‘ve never been arrested for cannabis, but it was common in the neighborhood where I grew up. A handful of my childhood friends have been arrested on petty cannabis charges, putting them in the embrace of our criminal justice system. Some of them were taken in so often that they came to anticipate each nuance of the criminal justice system—at age 13. They seemed to navigate the system with a patience and understanding I could never comprehend.

Community Host Agreements are typically created among members of old-boy networks that exclude people of color, especially in old-money cities like Boston.

One of my friends navigated the system so well that he represented himself in a lawsuit against a local municipality for false imprisonment—and won.

I consider myself a pretty square guy. I went to college in Boston. Went to grad school in Boston. Got a job in corporate Boston after college, and held a few other quasi-corporate positions before going out on my own and becoming an entrepreneur.

My experience has allowed me to understand corporate culture. I know how to navigate a conference room conversation with the same ease that my friends, who were arrested in their teens, exhibited while surviving the criminal justice system.

Today, I’m an equity candidate in Massachusetts’ grand experiment in cannabis economic participation. I’m actively navigating the cannabis licensing space. My corporate training has given me and my business partner somewhat of a leg up when it comes to the strange dynamics and nuances of the process.

Most groups looking to enter the industry hire law firms to help them navigate the painstaking license application process. (Those who can afford it, that is.) My team consist of just two guys, a handful of resources, and information. I imagine other equity applicants are approaching the process with similar limitations.

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A Long Wait for Zoning

Those economic empowerment equity applicants who have submitted their documents and received priority status can see it as a milestone in the licensing race. But it’s only the first step in a long and complicated process.

Those who’ve gotten that far possess priority, but not a license—yet. Applicants for a cannabis business license still need Community Host Agreements (CHA), land and/or facility use agreements, startup capital, and a functional business plan, among other things.

'Dozens of towns haven’t determined zones for where cannabis businesses can operate—which leaves potential equity proprietors out of the loop.'
Shanel Lindsay, Mass. Cannabis Advisory Board member

Massachusetts’ cannabis oversight framework is comprised of the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) and the Cannabis Advisory Board (CAB). The CAB established by Chapter 55 of the Acts of 2017 has 25 members: five appointees each from the Governor, Treasurer and Attorney General and ten ex-offiicio members with expertise and knowledge relevant to the Board’s mission.

Segmented into working committee groups, the CAB has tasked a specific subcommittee to oversee market participation, which is directed at developing recommendations on women, minority and veteran-owned businesses, local agriculture and growing cooperatives.

“The majority of teams that I’ve encountered who have submitted their equity applications for priority review are now working to organize their teams, access capital and develop business plans,” says Shanel Lindsay, an attorney, entrepreneur and member of the states Cannabis Advisory Board who makes recommendations on women and minority owned businesses in the cannabis industry.

Although equity groups are moving forward with their priority status, the real measure of progress for equity candidates takes place at the local level, where zoning laws and local lobbying intersect.

“Currently, dozens of towns haven’t determined zones for where cannabis businesses can operate—which leaves potential equity proprietors out of the loop,” Lindsay says.

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Historically Left Out

Traditionally, groups of color in and around Boston have had very little to zero representation in city government, No person of color has ever been elected mayor of Boston.

Ethnic groups that have historically been left out of public resources debates often lack the informal passed-along knowledge about navigating local government activities like lobbying and zoning. These activities are critical to launching any businesses in any locale in any industry. Community Host Agreements and land/facility use agreements are typically created among members of old-boy networks that exclude people of color, especially in old-money cities like Boston.

Grassroots organizations like EON, Equitable Opportunities Now, have organized educational programs, technical assistance, and network resources around the needs and challenges of equity candidates looking to participate in the cannabis economy.

But local municipalities have yet to adopt their own procedures and protocols for encouraging participation from women, veterans, and entrepreneurs of color. The CAB is currently recommending that the CCC issue guidelines to municipalities that explain the law’s equity provisions and recommend that municipalities create their own equity programs.

Neighborhood Culture Wars

Boston appears to be a globally connected, international city with influences from around the world. Many aspects of big industry intersect here: medicine, higher education, professional sports, technology, finance. You name it, we got a little bit of it.

Mayor Walsh's misinformation has a direct impact on the ability of minority entrepreneurs to secure Community Host Agreements.

For those who actually live here, though, Boston is a big, diverse small town controlled by a few neighborhood interests.

Boston’s Irish Catholic culture permeates the air and dominates the pulse of life here. The working class tough-as-nails persona Bostonians have projected through film, television and the region’s pro sports teams has real teeth.

Although a clear majority of residents in Massachusetts, and Boston, voted for adult-use legalization in 2016, there’s still a lingering cohort of “Not in my Backyard” folk who are fighting against cannabis retail operations in their neighborhoods. These groups reflect an older guard of yesterday’s Boston: Irish, Catholic, church-going, older, white.

Cannabis in Massachusetts communities has been a hot button issue for several months as adult use and legalization has become mainstream. In my role as a member of the Cannabis Control Commission’s citizens review subcommittee, and as an engaged citizen, I’ve sat in on numerous neighborhood/community meetings debating the topic of cannabis.

I’ve had firsthand experience listening to community members and religious groups draw connections that lump alcohol abuse, opioid abuse and cannabis consumption in the same pile. They often share their concerns with passion and haste, backed up with unsubstantiated fake news.

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Mayor Isn’t Helping

The city’s leaders have done little to calm the imagined fears. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, during his 2017 reelection campaign, used his past experience with alcohol abuse as a platform to communicate his personal opposition to a legal cannabis market here in Boston, even though the legalization issue had been settled by voters the previous year.

That opposition perpetuates cannabis stigmas at the highest level and has a direct impact on the ability of minority entrepreneurs to secure Community Host Agreements, commercial leases, and open shops in Boston’s predominately white neighborhoods.

‘Not in That Neighborhood’

I recently attended a meeting with a law firm representing a range of groups and businesses doing business in Boston. They also represent several cannabis operators. In strategizing which neighborhoods in Boston would be best suited to welcome a cannabis retail business, I mentioned a particular neighborhood that was up for consideration, based on a facility and retail storefront my own team was able to secure.

The lawyers immediately struck down the idea. They knew how tough it would be to gather local political support and community buy-in for a cannabis shop in that district.

“You won’t see a pot shop in that neighborhood for at least 5 years” one lawyer remarked. There’s an opioid crisis in that part of town, he said. People there “still draw unsubstantiated connections that cannabis is a gateway drug to opioid addiction. It won’t happen.”

Institutional Resistance to Change

The equity provisions the Cannabis Control Commission put forth were intended to provide a restorative justice framework for minority business groups, women, veterans, individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition. But here’s where the real tension lies in Boston: a local government infrastructure that structurally resists cultural innovation.

Cannabis prohibition laws were enacted generations ago to incarcerate black and brown people, and relegate them to second-class status. (For more on that, see Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and Ava DuVernay’s film documentary 13th.) The impacts of decades of regressive federal policies trickled down to the state and local level where it’s felt today, in the day to day lives of so many.

Take a walk through some of Boston’s predominately minority communities and you can see the neglect and resource deprivation these neighborhoods have experienced. You can then take a taxi, train, or uber to the other side of town (some cases, right down the street) where you’ll experience the glitz and glam of Boston’s luxury development boon.

Boston: Boom Times for Some

Over the last 20 years, the City of Boston and its outer communities have experienced an economic development boom like no other. Investments in higher education, housing, life sciences and biotech have transformed the city and region. In downtown Boston, luxury skyscrapers now stand in the former home of a department store for middle class shoppers. Cambridge’s Kendall Square, once a middle-class neighborhood enclave of Portuguese immigrant families, is now home to millions of square footage of lab space where thousands of MIT and Harvard graduates find well-paid employment.

These developments didn’t happen overnight. They took shape through policy negotiations between engaged citizens and their elected officials. They occurred because of a commitment to fund commerce, culture and innovation – things people of color in Boston have traditionally lacked access to.

Dozens of individuals in Boston’s diverse cultural diaspora have held political positions in local office over the years. But few individuals or groups have held enough power to transform communities of color for the greater good, at the speed and scale of, let’s say, Boston’s Seaport District or Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

Light at the End of a Smoky Tunnel

Some of those who have held positions of political influence have shifted careers into the local cannabis economy. Two notable former Boston officials have taken high-profile leadership roles with cannabis companies.

Former Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson recently took over as CEO of Verdant Medical Inc., a cannabis company backed by Florida investors. Jackson, a Roxbury native and longtime advocate of social justice initiative, including cannabis legalization, presents a face of change the community can connect with. Jackson says employees at his dispensary will be paid a $15 per hour wage with benefits, a direct link to his support for the ongoing workers rights campaign for $15 wages.

Former Suffolk County Sheriff and Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral recently accepted a position as chief executive of Ascend Cannabis, a startup with plans to open a retail shop in Boston and a grow facility in Athol, MA. In a recent interview, Cabral stated that the company plans to work directly with the Suffolk County Sheriff to hire people recently released from jail as workers at its cultivation facility and retail shop.

Cabral and Jackson, both of African-American decent, have taken on strategic leadership roles heading these cannabis companies. Cabral and Jackson give face to the rise of (and need for) African-Americans in executive leadership positions within the green economy. Given their public backgrounds and experience navigating the inner workings of Boston’s political infrastructure, both represent an opportunity to disrupt the institutions that traditionally resist cultural innovation and increase equitable participation among all.

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