Cannabis diversity eyed in council hearing

If Boston takes its cue from other cities and states, its infant marijuana industry could effectively lock out most participants who are not white, wealthy, and immediately ready to set up shop, officials warned this week. The city council is exploring Boston’s options to protect minority applicants and encourage greater equity in the industry.

At a well-attended hearing of the small business and consumer affairs committee, councillors prodded city and state officials about possible safeguards that could be added to the system to ensure equity.

“We are not here to debate whether we should have dispensaries, but whether how they will open and who will benefit,” Janey said. Voters “overwhelmingly” supported the legalization of recreation marijuana, she said, with the 62 percent in favor “opening the door to a massive economic windfall for those able to take advantage of the opportunities presented.”

The problem, Janey and her fellow councillors said, is that those poised to take advantage are looking like white owners from outside of the city.

Council President Andrea Campbell said she was “frustrated” with the speed of the city’s response.

“We knew it was coming and that it was going to be a billion-dollar industry with opportunities for folks, particularly folks from underserved communities…. I feel like we’re just behind the ball.”

Of the 27 marijuana business applicants to reach the second step in the city licensing process, only one is identified as an equity or economic empowerment applicant.

Equity and empowerment designations are supposed to encourage participation in the industry from people of color, people with criminal records stemming from drugs, people from communities impacted by fallout from the war on drugs, and those who have a track record of empowering their local communities and communities of color.

But those are not necessarily the groups ready to jump in head first, hearing attendees testified.

“The easy answer is, people are not applying,” said city economic development chief John Barros. “The more complex answer is, the support that is needed to get people to the place where they can apply in the formal process — there’s just not enough.”

It is a long and laborious process to get through city approvals alone. Applicants need to have a basic control of the site, get automatic denials from Inspectional Services, come back to the community and go through a series of public meetings and work toward getting approved. Before that can even happen, Barros said, prospective owners need to figure out where their supply would come from.

“So, it’s not that people aren’t interested,” Barros said. “There’s interest and there’s local interest. But the ramp up to get there is fraught with banks not trying to lend to these types of businesses. It’s fraught with there not being a lot of technical assistance out there.”

Though it may slow down the process, Barros said he supports a one-to-one ratio of equity applicants to non-equity applicants, “because equity should be our primary objective.”

Some possibilities for securing that equity could be connectivity between larger business and small locally owned ones, where the smaller shops benefit from the resources of the larger. He and Jerome Smith, head of the Office of Neighborhood Services, explained that the cannabis industry has to operate somewhat separately from the standard small business process.

Their small business support system is interwoven with federal grants, but federal funds are not allowed to be used for the marijuana industry, which is still illegal on that level. Barros said the city “needs Congresswoman [Ayanna Pressley] in D.C. and others to change the prohibition for federal funds to be used for these businesses.”

Pressley heads to Washington as Congresswoman-elect with a history of pushing for fair participation in historically inequitable approval processes, like liquor licensing. She said the city has the potential to ensure equity in the cannabis business’ workforce and ownership, but so far “no one has gotten this right.”

The only limit to the number of potential licensing locations in Boston are a half-mile-buffer between marijuana business and a 500-foot distance between them and any K-12 school. After that, if a proponent can navigate Boston’s pricey real estate market and secure a location, they are free to begin the process.

Every neighborhood will have a share of the incoming shops, councillors said, but they run the risk of not reflecting the communities.

“People often bandy about the phrase that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Pressley said. “Well, it depends on what boat you’re in. A rising tide only lifts all boats if we are thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive and intentional.”

Those at the hearing grappled consistently with the elephant in the room: even though voters in Boston supported legalization, there is still massive stigma associated with the cannabis business. Campbell, whose District 4 covers broad areas of Dorchester and Mattapan, said more has to be done to educate communities of color who are suspicious of the new industry.

“If we have an applicant of color, we in the community also have to make space in that community for that person to open a business,” she said. “We find ourselves having to remind folks that this is a legal industry, and if we aren’t more open minded in the community, we’re going to lose incredible opportunities to close the wealth gap.”