'Empowerment' carries the day for owners of Grove Hall cannabis shop

Kobie Evans, left, and Kevin Hart are partners in Pure Oasis, the city of Boston's first recreational marijuana shop scheduled to open in Grove Hall in October. Mike Whittaker photo

Permit in hand, they plan to open in October

Dorchester native Kobie Evans and his business partner, Kevin Hart, both African American, were granted a permit last month to open Boston’s first recreational cannabis shop in Grove Hall. Pure Oasis, the first marijuana store in Massachusetts to benefit from an economic empowerment program offered by the Cannabis Control Commission. It is expected to open by late October.

When Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, the state became the first in the nation to include a mandate prioritizing disenfranchised groups as a way to assist people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

Evans and Hart, just friends at the time, were hanging out one afternoon talking about the barriers people of color and black men face in order to be successful in Massachusetts. This was at a time when the Boston Globe Spotlight Team had published a series on race that highlighted, among other things, data from a 2015 Color of Wealth report finding that the median net worth for black American households in the Greater Boston region was $8, compared to $247,500 for whites in the same area.

Knowing how the state’s issues related to income inequality serve as a function of access to wealth-building business opportunities, the pair decided that they should take advantage of the social justice initiative in the new marijuana legislation to access a potential gateway to closing the racial wealth divide they faced in the city as black men.

They began by researching the details of the long and complicated process involved in getting into the newly legalized cannabis industry. Three years later, they are the first applicants to receive provisional approval to open a recreational dispensary in Boston.

Having grown up in similar situations of poverty and racial and economic inequality, Evans and Hart qualified perfectly for the economic empowerment program.

Evans, a real estate agent, and Hart, a healthcare practice manager, both lived in areas with high rates of arrests related to marijuana. Evans grew up in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner neighborhood when the war on drugs began to wreak havoc on Boston’s communities of color through what most residents saw as racial discrimination by law enforcement.

“Growing up, I can visibly remember walking down the street and being slammed into a storefront by police, being asked for ID just because I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Evans. “This was normal for men of color in my neighborhood.

“Many of my peers faced the tough risk of selling drugs because of the lack of employment opportunities due to discriminatory practices. Many of the kids I grew up with ended up in jail, and some of them are still there.”

Hart, who now resides in Randolph, grew up in similar conditions in Baltimore and Virginia where stop and frisk was the norm for black men.

Requirements for the state CCC’s program include having a past drug conviction or being the spouse or child of someone with a drug conviction; or having lived in an “area of disproportionate impact” for at least five years; and having an income that doesn’t exceed 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Applicants must have resided in the state for at least 12 months.

The CCC has so far received only ten application for the program. With a majority of economic empowerment applicants being small, local, minority-owned businesses, they are often at a disadvantage due to lack of financing options. Expenses just to apply for state business licenses can reach as high as $50,000 to $60,000.

“The process isn’t easy, and it would be a lot easier if we had a pile of money to hire a big lobbying firm to set up meetings with mayors, but that’s not the case. Being the little guys makes the process difficult to impossible,” said Evans, who pointed out that financing the initial costs isn’t the only issue economic empowerment applicants face.

Another hurdle is the process to secure a Host Community (HCAs) Agreement from local municipalities. “The hardest part of the process is the politics that are involved.” he said. State law requires applicants for marijuana business licenses to enter into agreements with host communities before the CCC will consider an application.

HCAs allow a municipality to collect a fee of up to 3 percent of a business’s gross sales for up to five years — so long as the fee is “reasonably related” to the impact of the marijuana establishment. Evans and marijuana advocacy groups alike contend that this is a botched portion of the law as many of these agreements appear to go beyond the law, allowing for extra payments in the form of donations and extending the five-year timeline, which present additional obstacles for small businesses and economic empowerment applicants seeking to enter the cannabis business.

“The law was written with loopholes in the areas that were supposed to benefit people of color, making it harder for us in the end,” said Evans. “We want Massachusetts to be in favor of small, local, minority-owned companies, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

On Monday, there was a hearing at the State House about the barriers to entry the HCAs present for local small businesses.

Despite the many disadvantages, Evans and Hart encourage future and current cannabis entrepreneurs not to give up; circumstances under the law are always changing, they note. “When we first started off, lawmakers weren’t talking about marijuana cafes and delivery services,” said Evans. “Some of the new things they’re rolling out can sometimes change in your favor.”

The two plan to hire people from the community, including those with criminal records, in order to ensure that the community benefits economically from their shop. Pure Oasis, they say, will eventually become a business incubator providing technical assistance to community members interested in opening their own small businesses in the marijuana industry.

This article has been amended to correct an editing error regarding which CCC program was applied in the case of Pure Oasis, which applied for a CCC economic empowerment program, not social equity. They are two distinct programs. For more information, see the CCC website.