Suddenly, equity is on the lips of politicians across the country as lawmakers scramble to respond to a historic national movement seeking racial justice and fairness.
But in Massachusetts, one industry was always supposed to be equitable: the legal marijuana business, created by voters in 2016 after an unsuccessful century-long “war” on the drug that disproportionately targeted Black people.
Under state law, those from communities hit hardest by cannabis prohibition are supposed to be given priority for licenses to grow, process, and sell marijuana. Four years later, however, that dream of fairness remains largely unrealized, with corporate operators dominating the state’s recreational pot market as smaller players struggle to raise money, meet onerous regulations, and navigate the meandering local-approval process.
Now, a coalition of state cannabis regulators and advocates is pressuring the Legislature to follow through on its promise and pass bills that would make the legal cannabis industry more accessible to small, local businesses and entrepreneurs of color — before the formal legislative session ends July 31.
“At this inflection point in our history, we are forced to reckon with the guilt of past injustices,” Segun Idowu, of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said at a virtual rally Thursday, which advocates organized along with Cannabis Control Commission members Steve Hoffman and Shaleen Title.
“We refuse to also allow this new industry be built on our backs,” Idowu added. “If Black lives matter, so does Black wealth, and so do Black entrepreneurs. We’re not asking for handouts — we’re demanding justice and equal access to opportunities.”
The coalition is pushing four bills, all languishing in various committees.
The headline proposal would direct some of the fines, fees, and taxes derived from the marijuana industry into no-interest loans for participants in the commission’s social equity and economic empowerment programs. Because cannabis remains illegal under US law, federally regulated banks almost never make loans to marijuana companies, giving a significant edge to the wealthy and well-connected.
“No-interest loans would go a huge way in helping me get more vehicles, helping me get more employees, and really just growing my businesses as a whole,” said Devin Alexander, a social equity applicant who plans to open a marijuana delivery business.
Another bill would give the cannabis commission oversight of the notorious “host community agreements” that applicants must sign with the city or town in which they hope to operate, and impose a firm cap on the large payments frequently demanded by municipal officials in exchange for local approval.
Current law nominally limits the value of such contracts to 3 percent of a company’s annual revenue, but local governments argue the language doesn’t ban the additional fees and “donations” they often seek. Potential corruption around the deals and a scandal in Fall River have prompted an ongoing federal investigation.
License applicants who participated in Thursday’s virtual rally said they had essentially been shaken down by cities and towns, or had their approval withheld by a single local elected official.
“I wasn’t taken seriously,” said entrepreneur Vanessa Jean-Baptiste, describing her initial attempts to negotiate a host community agreement in Brockton. “It shouldn’t be this hard, and you shouldn’t have to go through all this red tape.”
State Representative Chynah Tyler, a cosponsor of the loan bill, said cannabis entrepreneurs frequently complain to her about the local process.
“They’ve been paying bills [on empty facilities] for three years, but there’s no movement toward actually getting their business up and running,” Tyler said. “The process always derails them . . . It’s really disheartening.”
The third bill backed by the coalition would allow municipalities to opt into a pilot program permitting licensed “social consumption” venues, or marijuana cafes, with licenses at first reserved only for those in the social equity and economic empowerment programs.
The group is also pushing a measure that would automatically erase records of past marijuana convictions.
Hoffman, the chair of the cannabis commission, said it’s critical for state lawmakers to support the agency’s equity efforts.
Despite a bevy of commission policies meant to benefit them, he noted, just three marijuana businesses owned by participants in the commission’s social equity and economic empowerment programs or designated by the state as a “disadvantaged business enterprise” have managed to open, compared to dozens of larger investor-backed concerns.
“Words are cheap, and results are what matter,” Hoffman said during the rally. “I acknowledge and take accountability for the fact that we have not gotten to where we want to be and need to be.”
However, he concluded, addressing legislators, “we need help.”