At long last, Boston has a plan for how it will license marijuana businesses to open up shop in the new era of legalized recreational use.
The city has now finally spelled out how it intends to help people from communities most affected by the war on drugs to become local marijuana business operators. This was a long-overdue step to outline how Boston will fulfill the principle of social equity made explicit in the marijuana law Massachusetts voters passed via ballot initiative in 2016.
It’s embarrassing and indefensible that it’s taken three years for the city to respond to the will of its residents to buy recreational marijuana.
On Wednesday, the Boston City Council passed an amended ordinance, first proposed by Councilor Kim Janey in February, to revamp what so far has been an obscure, slow, and confusing process to evaluate and green-light marijuana retailers in the city.
The changes in the permitting process for new local marijuana business operators come after months of negotiations between Janey and the Walsh administration. The centerpiece of the ordinance is that it requires Walsh to establish a cannabis licensing board that would grant marijuana operators permits under a 1:1 ratio of qualifying “equity” companies to other businesses.
The new rules also set out criteria for who qualifies as an equity applicant, which include, among other factors: whether a person has lived for five or more years of the past decade in an area of the city that has suffered disproportionate impact from past marijuana law enforcement; whether the applicant is black, African-American, Hispanic, Latino, or of Asian descent; and whether the person or company was designated by the state as an economic empowerment applicant.
The new legislation also bolsters transparency through the creation of an online public registry that will disclose all currently licensed and pending marijuana applicants in Boston and any of their “close associates, any controlling persons, and any investors in the business.” Lest we forget, the stakes for transparency around the emerging marijuana industry couldn’t be higher now that US Attorney Andrew Lelling is looking into the agreements that municipalities have signed with cannabis companies, including Boston, for possible corruption.
The ordinance’s most distinctive feature is a city-run $1 million dollar fund, which will be supplied by marijuana fees, to provide support for entrepreneurs from the equity communities it defines. That makes Boston a leader statewide. “It’s the first policy of its kind to create a fund to support equity,” said Shaleen Title of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
Yet even with the equity fund, significant obstacles remain for minority applicants in the industry, including the inability to secure loans and the outsized competitive advantage that “Big Cannabis” enjoys. That’s what makes true equity in the cannabis industry so elusive.
And while the ordinance is a step in the right direction, it has critical shortcomings.
For instance, in Janey’s original proposal, the board would have been an independent body established by the City Council. Except that, in Boston, only the mayor can create a new board and determine its operational procedures. Mayor Walsh should make this body truly independent by allowing the City Council to appoint at least two members — and to monitor the equity outcomes. The members must also have varying areas of expertise spanning, for example, public health policy and small-business development.
The Boston ordinance is worth modest celebration. Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the first legal recreational marijuana sales in Massachusetts, and at long last, the first Boston shop is set to open this month. Located in Dorchester, the first Boston retailer will also be the first economic empowerment applicant, certified by the state, to open a store statewide. That’s a first the city should feel proud of, even if it’s taken too long.