Marijuana stores are slowly opening around Massachusetts, but industry analysts estimate that three-quarters of all cannabis sales still occur under the table.
In that climate, police leaders say they are unsure of their role when it comes to unlicensed marijuana sellers. They are caught between licensed companies that are urging crackdowns on their non-tax-paying competitors selling cheaper cannabis, and communities calling for no more pot arrests, which have historically targeted people of color.
“The police are confused,” former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis said Thursday at the Northeast Cannabis Business Conference. After legalization, he said, “the police have a lot of demand to do other things, so they simply moved away from enforcement in that area because the people have spoken, number one, and number two, it’s slightly confusing.”
But now that licensed businesses and some regulators are pressing authorities to rein in underground sellers who undercut the regulated market and push potentially dangerous vaping products, Davis said, there is likely room for enforcement. Civil fines may make more sense than jail, he said.
Law enforcement prefers to focus on crimes with victims, said Davis, a security consultant whose clients include The Boston Globe. Now, “This new industry is actually being victimized by illicit growers and distributors. In the past, a lot of times you’d call this a victimless crime.”
Licensed companies may claim to be victims, but there are many who see them as the villains, benefiting from the consumer market originally built by underground operators who faced prosecution for decades. Some of those operators now feel excluded from the legal industry because of the enormous capital and political connections often needed to navigate local and state approvals.
The legal industry is “not necessarily creating opportunities for the folks who bore the brunt of prohibition for generations and who in fact started this industry and cultivated this industry before there was a licit market,” said Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project.
Davis’s remarks came during a panel billed as summarizing a daylong, closed-door summit on Wednesday involving 68 representatives of federal and local law enforcement, regulators, cannabis corporations, and social justice activists. Reporters were barred from the session, drawing criticism from attendees that the conference lacked transparency on an important safety and health discussion.
“Do you believe that that’s the kind of behavior that’s going to help the community find trust in you?” Rachel Ramone Donlan, a cannabis activist from Boston, asked during Thursday’s panel.
Andrew Kline, the National Cannabis Industry Association’s policy director, answered that the goal of holding Wednesday’s meeting in secret was to allow law enforcement officials to speak openly about sensitive topics.
Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, who participated in the summit, said most of the attendees painted all the people involved in the unregulated market as bad actors, not recognizing that many people provided medicine for cancer or HIV patients, and were often trying to support their families.
“I had to introduce myself as someone who, for most of my life, has been one of the people that they’re demonizing — as not caring about patient health, not caring about people’s safety — and nothing could be further from the truth,” Ortiz said. “The way y’all are discussing the problem is going to guarantee that those people feel uncomfortable to draft policy to solve the problem.”
An audience member, Kenny Mack, who grew up in Dorchester, said the conversations omitted Black and Latino communities that were hardest hit by the war on drugs and should benefit from legalization. Black people in Massachusetts were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 than whites, despite similar consumption rates, one study showed. The five-person panel Davis spoke on Thursday was all white.
“There’s a moral schism that has to be addressed,” said Mack, who is Black and founded Restore the Harm, an organization seeking to use the cannabis industry to revitalize minority neighborhoods. “No one ever talks about it. Why? Because these panels look like Wall Street — they don’t look like Blue Hill Avenue.”
Massachusetts has made great strides in creating the nation’s first statewide social equity programs that offer mentorship or licensing advantages to people who were affected by cannabis arrests, Gersten said. But the results so far have been disappointing to many.
“Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a perfect model that exists to create an equitable industry," Gersten said.
Davis disagreed that police unfairly targeted communities of color. He said that as police commissioner he used to attend meetings where people “were demanding more cops in neighborhoods, not less.”
“There was a woman that I’ll never forget in Dorchester that couldn’t let her kids outside on the sidewalk because so much shooting was occurring out there," Davis said.
Police didn’t write the laws and never intentionally targeted marijuana, he said, blaming politicians and lawmakers.
Many marijuana arrests started more as “contempt of cop,” Davis said. “It was sort of like, if somebody’s mouthing off to me and I see some marijuana on them, I can hook them up and send them in."
“When you look at the number of people in jail, it went way too far and it’s unconscionable,” Davis added. But, he said, police weren’t going out looking “to put a lot of people in jail.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.