WORCESTER — Massachusetts leaders said they wanted locals, minorities, and small businesses in the legal marijuana industry — but more than a year after cannabis stores started opening, frustrations at an overwhelmingly corporate reality that has taken hold boiled over here Thursday at a state commission meeting.
In a packed room that frequently erupted in applause, a parade of small-scale entrepreneurs told the Cannabis Control Commission that the licensing process was stacked against them and heavily favored large wealthy companies.
The commission scheduled the forum, which drew at least 70 registered speakers, in response to an applicant interrupting two previous commission meetings to assert unfairness in licensing. Massachusetts was the first state to mandate in its legalization law that regulators boost communities hardest hit by the war on drugs, leading to particular frustrations among Black and Hispanic applicants who feel they haven’t been given their promised fair shot at earning a piece of the nearly $400 million-a-year industry.
“The recreational cannabis industry was supposed to create equity for people that are directly and indirectly affected by [criminalization], and if Black and brown people are not moving forward . . . then we really need to pause and reevaluate the system,” said Ominique Garner, a Black farmer trying to open Village Piff, a cannabis cooperative in Rochester.
Among the speakers’ common complaints: painfully slow application reviews; no information about their status in line; an inefficient cycle of requests for information from staffers; and what they felt was a failure to adequately help people in the state’s social equity and economic empowerment programs, which are aimed at helping those from areas with a high number of marijuana arrests.
“You’ve created a place where all of us are in limbo, trying to figure out how we’re going to get out," said Cleon Byron, a social equity applicant who has paid $10,000 monthly rent for nearly two years on a Dorchester building where he hopes to open a marijuana store. "You want to . . . help us become better entrepreneurs, create more jobs for the community, and you’re stopping us at the same time. You’re putting us deeper in the hole by this going so slow.”
So far, just 10 of more than 260 licenses awarded by the state have gone to people in the economic empowerment or social equity programs. Economic empowerment offers faster licensing reviews, though participants say the results have been disappointing. The social equity program run by the commission offers training on business development and legal, tax, and regulatory compliance.
Steven Hoffman, the commission chairman, opened the forum by saying that the commission has hired more licensing staff to speed processing times and will soon unveil new technology that will better inform applicants about their status.
“We are committed to continue listening, learning, and adapting as necessary,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman also noted that licenses for delivery and cannabis cafes would be exclusively for economic empowerment and social equity applicants for the first two years. (Microbusinesses are also allowed to deliver.)
But that exclusivity could be ripe for corporate takeover, said Chauncy Spencer, an economic empowerment applicant from Boston who was formerly incarcerated.
Spencer said well-heeled companies are trying to game the system through “partnering” with businesses like his, but really “turning them into fronts.” The Globe Spotlight Team reported on similar previous attempts by some companies that were later abandoned after the commission said those schemes would not pass muster.
“You guys may have created a larger hurdle for them to jump through, but now they’re reforming themselves and coming in in different ways,” Spencer said.
Marcus Williams, an economic empowerment applicant planning businesses in Great Barrington and Northampton, said the commission should help people like him by requiring the financially burdensome step of securing real estate later in the application process, not as a first step.
“This will remove one of the biggest up-front barriers,” he said, adding that Illinois has enacted a similar process.
“You’re absolutely right,” said Commissioner Shaleen Title, adding that Illinois had also provided a model for offering financing to disadvantaged businesses. She said the commission is implementing a new regulation that will allow social equity and economic empowerment applicants to receive a “precertification," or commission approval to eventually become licensed, which would facilitate raising the capital needed to negotiate a required contract with their city or town, and secure real estate.
Andrew Mutty said he first applied to get a microbusiness license for his cultivation company, Beantown Greentown, nearly a year ago. Echoing other speakers, he said the commission’s staffers sent requests for more information one at a time, with long waits in between, instead of sending them all together.
“The more [requests for information] that come in, the more I’m getting pushed to the bottom,” Mutty said, adding that he has spent $135,000 so far just on rent to hold a space that he can’t yet use. He questioned why background checks took several weeks: “If I murdered someone tomorrow, you could have my background check done overnight.”
Flavia Hungaro, a social equity applicant trying to open a retail and cultivation business in Taunton, said she too is waiting after answering several commission requests for information. If she doesn’t receive a provisional license by the end of March, she said, her lease will expire and her landlord will sell the space she’s been paying for to a gym company.
“I’m anxiously waiting," Hungaro said. “I’m hoping there should be enough time.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.