Marijuana entrepreneurs and religious leaders shared their differing perspectives on the role of cannabis in Boston’s Black communities Friday morning in interviews on the Globe’s “Black News Hour.”
Guests discussed both sides of the debate over whether to legalize the drug — and what place, if any, legal marijuana businesses have in neighborhoods such as Roxbury, where multiple companies are jostling for permission to open dispensaries and other licensed marijuana facilities.
The Globe’s Tiana Woodard co-hosted the episode with Boston.com sportswriter Khari Thompson. They were joined first by Kobie Evans, the co-owner of the Pure Oasis marijuana store in Grove Hall; Brian Keith, owner of the proposed Rooted In Roxbury cannabis shops; Vanessa Jean-Baptiste, president of Brockton pot operator Legal Greens; and Shaleen Title, a former commissioner at the state Cannabis Control Commission who now leads the Parabola Center think tank.
All three entrepreneurs said that actually opening for business has proved immensely challenging, despite landmark provisions in state law calling for racial equity in the legal cannabis industry following decades of racially disproportionate arrests. That’s thanks in part to high upfront costs, federal restrictions that make it difficult to obtain financing for such ventures, and an onerous and unpredictable local approval process that can be highly politicized.
“I can’t even begin to explain the complexity of the process,” Evans said, adding that his company had to seek the blessing of various “invisible hands” — powerful officials and community members who wield power over local licensing despite having no formal role.
The business leaders also said they had faced opposition to their proposed marijuana stores from small but vocal groups of neighborhood residents. Keith’s company, for example, will open its first store on Newbury Street instead of in Roxbury as initially planned, after city zoning officials shot down the Roxbury proposal in part over concerns from neighbors.
“No matter what you offer, it’s really difficult to get the most vocal people in the community to hear what you’re saying and that you’re trying to do the right thing,” Keith said. “[They] consistently come out and just want to say, ‘no, no, no.’ ”
Along with Title, the business owners said they were supportive of legislation recently approved by the state Senate that would create a fund for so-called equity applicants trying to join the industry and require cities and towns to consider equity when licensing marijuana companies — something Boston does already.
“Luckily Boston is very committed to equity, but most municipalities are not like that,” Title said. “This bill would help to push it and keep racial justice at the center and the forefront, as it should be.”
The “Black News Hour” also spoke with the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Church, and Imam Taalib Mahdee of Masjid Al-Qur’an, two community leaders who are more skeptical of legal marijuana’s place in the city’s Black community.
Culpepper recently objected to a proposed marijuana business in Grove Hall that had sought an exception to a Boston zoning rule mandating a half-mile buffer between every cannabis business, arguing that Black communities which were disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs should not have to host a disproportionate share of such firms.
However, Culpepper said he supported the idea of a fund for equity businesses, and urged state lawmakers to wipe away old criminal records related to pot while investing more marijuana tax revenue into Black neighborhoods.
Mahdee took a more conservative stance on the issue, saying he was dismayed to see young entrepreneurs enter the marijuana business.
“People of faith, they don’t sell drugs,” he said, calling instead for greater investment in education.