Commentary: Dorchester deserves its share of cannabis revenue reinvestment

When we wrote Question 4 to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis in Mass., the drafting committee intentionally included provisions to support local entrepreneurs and invest in communities ravaged by systemic racism.

To the Legislature’s credit, its members upheld that goal when they rewrote the law, dedicating funding (subject to appropriation) to five priorities, including “restorative justice, jail diversion, [and] workforce development” programs and services to help “persons in communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for marijuana offenses” participate in this new industry.

Four years later, the Legislature has yet to appropriate any funds to those programs, choosing instead to invest $45.6 million to “cut in half its general fund allocation” to the state’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. 

The Boston Globe recently reported that “across Massachusetts, marijuana companies complain that local officials frequently require (or pressure) them to spend large sums on [police] traffic details that are unnecessary, intimidating, or both.” Despite the windfall that police departments are receiving from unregulated host community agreements (the contracts between municipalities and dispensary applicants needed to move forward in the approval process), the recent House police reform bill would direct some cannabis revenues to police training. Dorchester is lucky to have a champion like Rep. Liz Miranda, who was a vocal leader for equity funding during this debate.

The impact of this lack of investment is telling: After the issuance of more than 70 marijuana establishment licenses to equity, economic empowerment, and disadvantaged business enterprises, only three have been able to open so far. Only one of those three — Pure Oasis — is Black-owned and I’m proud that they are a part of our community.

With a significant budget shortfall anticipated as a result of COVID-19, the pressure will be even greater for legislators to turn to cannabis revenues intended for communities like Dorchester to fill the gaps. 

As the state works to balance its budget and foster economic recovery, it should immediately act on legislation filed by Sen. Jason Lewis as well as Reps. Dave Rogers and Chynah Tyler to enable the Cannabis Control Commission to use non-tax revenue from fines and donations to support equity.

But that alone is not enough. Dorchester is fortunate to have leaders like state Sen. Nick Collins and Reps. Dan Cullinane and Dan Hunt who helped sponsor a bill to create a cannabis equity loan fund for local entrepreneurs, who were once criminalized, to participate in the industry. That bill was reported favorably out of committee and must be enacted to spur true investment back into communities.

To truly create equitable participation in the cannabis industry and drive the real restorative justice and community reinvestment promised by cannabis legalization, the Legislature must commit itself to dedicating at least 20 percent of excess cannabis revenue back into communities as envisioned by the law.

Unfortunately, there aren’t currently the same kinds of resources behind implementing the equity provisions of the law as there were to passing the ballot question. I urge anyone who cares about equitable economic development to make their voices heard to their elected leaders by thanking our Dorchester leaders like Sen. Collins and Reps. Cullinane, Hunt, and Miranda -- and encouraging others to join this effort.
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Kevin Gilnack lives in the Savin Hill neighborhood of Dorchester and is a nonprofit public affairs consultant specializing in human services, social justice, and equity. He served as executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association during the 2016 Question 4 campaign and was a member of the ballot question drafting committee.