When news broke yesterday that Patriot Care, a leading Massachusetts dispensary, was lobbying to exclude anyone with a prior felony drug conviction from the industry, it sparked outrage from legalization advocates around the nation.
The company’s move came in a letter sent by Patriot Care CEO Robert Mayerson to the Massachusetts Health Council, a government agency tasked with regulating the cannabis industry. The Council is currently considering a number of rule changes, including the elimination of the existing felony drug prohibition. Currently, state regulations prevent anyone with a felony drug conviction from serving in any capacity with a Registered Marijuana Dispensary (RMD).
A proposed rule change would eliminate the ban. Patriot Care came out strongly against the change.
“Permitting those who have demonstrated the interest and willingness to ignore state and federal drug laws sends the wrong signals to those who would participate in the legal, regulated industry,” CEO Robert Mayerson wrote.
The reaction from the cannabis community came swiftly. Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell, who broke the news, led things off. Other bold-face names–including Drug Policy Alliance’s Bill Piper, Oregon cannabis leader Kaliko Castille, and Law Enforcement Action Partnership advocate Diane Goldstein–quickly followed.
It was a mix of bewilderment and outrage.
Bewilderment because: Here’s a cannabis industry CEO actively lobbying to bar anyone convicted of breaking the same unjust federal drug laws that Mayerson and his company have ignored since the day they opened.
“It’s incredibly hypocritical of them to cite federal laws while breaking the same federal laws every day,” Shanel Lindsay told Leafly. Lindsay, an attorney and founder of Ardent Cannabis, helped write Massachusetts’ adult use cannabis law, “This reveals a tension between the goals of activists and the goals of this industry.”
For many legalization advocates, their work is fueled by social justice concerns. It’s no secret that our nation’s drug laws disproportionally target black people. It’s also widely known and recognized that the emerging cannabis industry has a diversity problem. The two issues go hand in hand. Patriot Care’s seeming ignorance, or simple willingness to accept these disparities and actively perpetuate inequality, blew up into a public relations fiasco.
“This decision is unfortunate,” Ardent CEO Lindsay told Leafly. “And it’s tone deaf to the equity issues in this industry. We know a bias exists when you exclude those with prior drug convictions. The social justice piece, that was a driving force behind why Question 4 passed.”
Leafly reached out to Patriot Care—via phone, email, and social media—for an explanation. The company chose not to respond.
Shaleen Title, co-founder of the THC Staffing Group and a longtime cannabis advocate, echoed Shanel Lindsay’s concerns. Title also helped draft Question 4, the Massachusetts adult use legalization measure.
“Excluding people for marijuana convictions isn’t a fair practice,” Title told Leafly. “If you look at the well-documented racial disparities in drug law enforcement, you’ll understand that judging people based on involvement in the legal system for marijuana is essentially judging them based on where they came from. If you have black or brown skin, you are far more likely to have a marijuana conviction than someone else who used or sold marijuana.”
This isn’t the first time Patriot Care has drawn fire from others in the legalization movement.
In February 2016, the opening of the company’s dispensary in Lowell, Mass., was marred by a protest organized by legalization advocates. The protesters were upset because Daniel Delaney, a registered lobbyist for Patriot Care, had formed a committee to defeat Question 4, the state’s adult use legalization measure. It was never clear whether Patriot Care was behind Delaney’s committee. Delaney himself told Leafly the company had nothing to do with it. But the prior relationship between Delaney and Patriot Care led many in the advocacy community to draw their own conclusions.
Question 4 ultimately passed by a 7-point margin that November.
Patriot Care’s controversial letter also led some to reflect on the progress made since the first adult use laws were passed in Colorado and Washington state four years ago.
“When marijuana businesses were a completely new idea, these exclusions were brought up out of an abundance of caution, as a controversial way to minimize risk,” Shaleen Title pointed out. “But now we are in a different place, where the majority of Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal in some form. The trend is for marijuana laws to move away from this shameful practice.”
That’s particularly true in Boston, Title added, “which is leading the nation in its efforts for racial equity in cannabis.” The Boston City Council Committee on Jobs, Wages & Workforce Development recently released a report recommending further action to address the racial impact caused by the war on drugs. Those actions include expunging records for marijuana convictions and developing and funding re-entry programs for people transitioning out of prison.
“People who are still supporting discriminating against people with convictions,” Title said, “are stuck in the past.”