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OPINION

The state Cannabis Control Commission seeks to right the wrongs of the war on drugs

To steer this policy discussion in the right direction, the public is invited to weigh in by submitting comments to the commission by March 4.

Marquise Cummings, an employee at Pure Oasis Cannabis Shop, watched a line of customers that wrapped around the block on May 25, 2020.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

If you are a Massachusetts resident who has been harmed by the war on drugs, either personally, through a family member’s experience, or in your community, now is the time to pay attention to the cannabis industry and make your voice heard.

The state Cannabis Control Commission is evaluating which Massachusetts cities and towns were hit hardest by previous marijuana prohibition and enforcement, and which residents, by law, should be eligible to receive the benefits of the now-legal, $2.5 billion industry.

Our state was the first in the nation to enact a mandate to promote equity in the regulated marketplace. As a result, our agency offers benefits to certain populations, including those who have resided in 29 specific municipalities designated as “disproportionately impacted areas.” Of those 29, municipalities with populations over 100,000 have been subdivided into census tracts.

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Individuals who have lived in a disproportionately impacted area may be eligible to participate in the commission’s Social Equity Program, for example. The program provides training and technical assistance to prospective marijuana business owners, employees, and ancillary companies that provide services to licensees, and other licensing benefits. Plus, each license applicant who comes before the commission must submit a plan to positively impact disproportionately harmed people, detailing how it will invest resources in communities on the DIA list and other populations.

Several studies, largely relying on arrest data, poverty rates, and racial demographics, inform the commission’s ongoing review of disproportionately impacted areas. In 2017, an independent researcher published “The Impact of Drug and Marijuana Arrests on Local Communities in Massachusetts.” In 2021, the commission and the UMass Donahue Institute released, “Identifying Disproportionately Impacted Areas by Cannabis Prohibition in Massachusetts.” The data and methodology used to determine the most harmed communities are available for public review.

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I’ve expressed concerns about lingering gaps. For one thing, crime does not always occur where offenders live. In other words, Boston census tracts in downtown and Back Bay may experience a high concentration of property crimes due to increased daytime population, the presence of stores, and more opportunities for theft. However, that does not mean residents of those areas have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition or should be eligible for the benefits of legalization. It is critical that we recognize important indicators of disproportionate impact in offenders’ own communities, and that their neighbors be considered for these benefits.

My colleagues and I have met with community leaders, municipal officials, licensees, and equity applicants to understand their perspectives on possible changes to the current list. Now, the public is invited to weigh in by submitting comments to Commission@CCCMass.com by March 4.

Some may argue that expanding the disproportionately impacted areas list is better for the cannabis industry because more eligibility means more areas benefit. However, that ignores the purpose of Massachusetts’ equity mandate and undercuts the restoration of communities that are still living with the impact of the war on drugs.

According to a MassINC study, approximately half of Department of Correction inmates are released into just 10 communities statewide. Unsurprisingly, they are among the highest crime areas in the Commonwealth and have experienced firsthand collateral damage caused by the war on drugs. What’s more, people of color represent three-fourths of those convicted of mandatory minimum drug offenses in Massachusetts but make up less than one-fourth of our population. That reality must be represented on the disproportionately impacted areas list.

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Despite legalization, marijuana enforcement continues to hurt urban communities and destabilize high-incarceration-rate neighborhoods. For decades, men and women were kept out of the workforce while serving time for cannabis offenses; then, upon release, they were effectively barred from jobs, housing, and opportunity because of those criminal records. Persisting systemic disparities and inequities completely sidelined talent and stunted economic growth for entire communities. Meanwhile, thousands now reap the rewards of a thriving legal industry in Massachusetts.

The complexities of the war on drugs evoke discomfort and pain, particularly among those coping with its collateral consequences. However, to ensure justice in the booming Massachusetts cannabis industry, it is critical that those who should benefit participate in this process.

If we, as a collective, do not pay attention to how the DIA list evolves, the very people Massachusetts is mandated to support are at risk of further disenfranchisement. The commission can and must do better with a more comprehensive and inclusive approach.

We owe it to ourselves, our families, and our communities to get involved now.

Ava Callender Concepcion is a Massachusetts Cannabis Control commissioner and is a member of the Massachusetts Bar. She lives in Uphams Corner in Boston.