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City agency aimed at bringing transparency to marijuana decisions is poised to begin work

Boston’s Cannabis Board seeks to ensure fairness to selection, siting of stores

Mayor Martin J. Walsh handed a pen to City Councilor Kim Janey after signing Boston's marijuana licensing ordinance into law at City Hall last November.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh handed a pen to City Councilor Kim Janey after signing Boston's marijuana licensing ordinance into law at City Hall last November.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

After a three-month delay related in part to the coronavirus pandemic, Boston’s Cannabis Board is poised to meet for the first time and approve proposed marijuana businesses under a new system designed to increase transparency and fairness.

Two members of the five-person board, which will oversee the selection and siting of marijuana stores and growing facilities in the city, were sworn in last Thursday, according to officials in the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The remaining members should be seated in time for an inaugural meeting sometime in June.

Next month will also see Walsh sign new host community agreements — critical contracts that each marijuana firm must sign with its municipality to win a state license — for the first time since October, according to the officials.

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“Boston remains committed to supporting diverse, equitable, and locally owned cannabis businesses in Boston throughout this public health crisis,” said Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s director of emerging industries, whose office oversees the local marijuana license approval process.

So far, retailer Pure Oasis in Grove Hall is the only recreational marijuana business to open in Boston.

The new city board is just one part of an overhauled system for choosing which Boston marijuana license applicants will move on to be reviewed by the state Cannabis Control Commission.

The system, based on an ordinance championed by the City Council’s president, Kim Janey, followed concerns from both applicants and neighbors of proposed pot facilities.

It also creates an equity program offering technical assistance and training for entrepreneurs trying to open marijuana facilities in Boston who were arrested in the past for marijuana crimes, or who belong to groups or communities disproportionately targeted by police enforcing the prohibition of cannabis.

And critically, it requires Boston to approve equal numbers of equity program participants and other applicants. The measure is designed to ensure fairness and prevent large, out-of-state, investor-backed concerns from dominating the city’s recreational pot market.

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Previously, Walsh’s office evaluated cannabis applicants behind closed doors, leading to complaints that the old process was opaque and favored the politically connected. The mayor’s administration has countered that the 14 applicants it has approved so far are diverse in size and ownership, and that the city tried to balance neighborhood concerns with pressure from advocates and applicants to quickly roll out pot shops and other marijuana facilities with diverse owners.

Now, the new Cannabis Board will rate applicants on weighted criteria and vote on their applications in public. However, it is technically an advisory body, with Walsh retaining the ultimate power to approve or deny applicants.

The long delay in implementing the new system, which was approved by the City Council on a 12-1 vote in November, has frustrated many of the very applicants it was intended to help.

Chauncy Spencer, an equity-eligible entrepreneur who has been trying for two years to open a marijuana shop in Mattapan, said he can no longer afford the $5,000 monthly rent on his empty storefront while he awaits city approval.

“My landlord has been extraordinarily patient, but I’m on the way out any day,” Spencer said. “I don’t see how [the city] can expect a reasonable businessman to operate in this space. There’s no certainty at all. The rules have been changed again and again.”

Like other applicants, Spencer is frustrated that he must seek the blessing of the neighborhood’s city councilors, saying the requirement makes the process into a political game of who-knows-whom.

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Janey, the architect of the new system, is also frustrated.

In April, she called for a hearing on its slow implementation. She has also argued the city should go further by requiring that half of licenses in some of the city’s prime commercial districts — Fenway, Back Bay, Downtown, and the Seaport — go to equity applicants. Otherwise, she fears, marijuana businesses owned by people of color will be relegated to more outlying neighborhoods with less foot traffic, while larger firms monopolize areas with the highest revenue potential.

“It’s not enough to say we have half of the licenses within Boston going to equity applicants if all the equity applicants are forced to be on the outskirts,” Janey said. “We know all the money’s in the center of the city. If we sit back and let the market take its course, we’ll just be building on top of existing inequities."


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.