When the Boston Cannabis Board was established in early 2020 by then-Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston City Council, the move was welcomed by local elected officials and industry watchers. Up until then, the city’s process to license new marijuana shops was slow, mired in confusion, and lacking transparency. As one cannabis industry insider told the Globe at the time: “I think they’re completely making it all up as they go along.”
The five-member cannabis board, with members appointed by the mayor, was supposed to bring more independence and clarity to the process of evaluating and approving prospective pot establishments in the city. Indeed, the process has become a little more predictable for entrepreneurs. But to further streamline it, officials in the administration of Mayor Michelle Wu want to eliminate what they call an existing “unneeded barrier” for marijuana companies, particularly applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds: the requirement of an additional hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Wu administration is on the right track. The ZBA step was understood initially as just a formality. But in practice, it became a place for neighbors to oppose applicants that had already been cleared by the cannabis board and to complain about violations of the half-mile buffer zone rule between marijuana shops. That rule, proposed by councilor Michael Flaherty and approved by the City Council, has never been tenable — because it was always at odds with state law that says that Boston must eventually issue a minimum of 52 pot licenses. There are currently a dozen or so marijuana establishments in the city. Because of the city’s size, that meant the buffer zone would constantly have to be ignored during the process, by both the cannabis board and the ZBA — and it was.
The city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, Segun Idowu, testified at a hearing about the changes to the licensing process proposed by the Wu administration. Idowu said that seven marijuana establishments had been approved by the cannabis board in a vetting process that pot entrepreneurs testified as being far from a rubber stamp; and yet, they were denied later during the ZBA part of the process. Four of those seven companies were equity applicants.
One of those equity applicants was Jody Mendoza. “Please, end the system of double jeopardy,” Mendoza said during the hearing. The ZBA hearing is “another opportunity for people to come out and stop us.”
Having the ZBA involved not only creates more red tape, it also inevitably created the perception of political chicanery given the multiple conflicts of interest of those involved in the licensing process.
Flaherty and neighborhood groups oppose the elimination of the ZBA from the cannabis process. Of course they do. Flaherty testified at the hearing: “A lot of folks voted for [legal marijuana] but don’t necessarily want it in their neighborhood.” That’s exactly the problem. The answer to those folks’ discontent isn’t to keep in place unnecessary barriers for pot shop owners. And, as Boston officials pointed out, there is already a process in place for neighbors to air their opposing arguments against marijuana establishment applicants.
It’s past time to drop the myth that cannabis shops pose any kind of public safety threat to communities. In addition to eliminating the ZBA from the licensing process, the Wu administration should drop the buffer zone rule officially. Marijuana establishments are here to stay, and they should be part of the city’s economic inclusion strategy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.