Massachusetts officials on Thursday announced the members of a new board that will play a critical role in how the state will disperse money from a trust fund created to help cannabis entrepreneurs from overpoliced communities get their businesses off the ground.
The Cannabis Social Equity Advisory Board, which is charged with guiding the Executive Office of Economic Development in overseeing the trust fund, is made up of five marijuana industry experts appointed by the governor, attorney general, and state treasurer.
Former governor Charlie Baker appointed Keisha Brice as the board’s chair, who by law must have cannabis industry experience. Brice was the first vice president of compliance at multistate marijuana company Curaleaf, though the company said she no longer works there.
The other four members of the board are marijuana delivery company owner Chris Fevry, appointed by state treasurer Deborah Goldberg; cannabis entrepreneur and finance expert Aaron Goines, nominated by Governor Maura Healey in her role as the outgoing attorney general; and local marijuana executives Meaka Brown and Phil Smith, appointed together by Baker, Goldberg, and Healey. The roles are all unpaid, though members may be reimbursed for expenses.
State lawmakers created the advisory board and the fund — paid for by 15 percent of recreational pot taxes, plus donations from larger marijuana companies — as part of a sweeping cannabis industry reform bill Baker signed into law last August. The legislation is intended to increase the number of state marijuana licenses awarded to applicants from disenfranchised communities who have struggled to raise the capital necessary to launch new companies.
“So many people of color have been imprisoned over [marijuana]. ... We’re finally saying as a society that enough is enough,” said Goines, a Wall Street veteran who previously worked in risk management for large financial institutions. “I hope we can work together to come up with something thoughtful that’s correctly designed to help people who are trying really hard to get into this industry.”
Activists have welcomed the new law, which could steer more than $20 million annually into the fund. They also applauded officials for appointing an all-Black board, a rarity in Massachusetts government.
“Black and brown entrepreneurs have waited far too long for an opportunity to participate in this new industry after years of criminalization have decimated their communities,” said Shanel Lindsay, the cofounder of local advocacy group Equitable Opportunities Now, who added that the appointees are “impressive.”
Securing capital in the industry is especially difficult because of the federal prohibition on cannabis, which has scared off most banks and other financial institutions that provide loans to small businesses.
“We had hundreds of conversations [with potential investors] that went nowhere,” said Fevry, who co-owns the Your Green Package delivery firm. “Now we have an opportunity to really lower the barrier to entry.”
Lawmakers left several key details of the fund up to economic development officials, including how they will vet potential recipients and whether the money will be issued as grants or loans. With nearly all oversight of the marijuana industry concentrated at the independent Cannabis Control Commission, experts said the advisory board will play an important role by providing cannabis-specific expertise to leaders in Healey’s administration.
Goines, Healey’s appointee, said the board must strike a difficult balance: Screen companies thoroughly to ensure they have viable business plans and won’t waste taxpayer dollars without turning the process into another bureaucratic hurdle.
He said he envisions sizeable grants of perhaps $1 million each, paid out gradually as firms hit milestones set by state officials, arguing that smaller “microloans” of $25,000 or less would do little to help entrepreneurs succeed in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.
“I’m definitely mindful that this is a public fund, and that other states are looking to us as a model,” he said. “We have to be very prudent in how we’re disbursing it.”
Despite the potential challenges, Goines is hopeful the fund will make a difference, including by providing an alternative to the often-predatory lending deals private investors and larger marijuana companies offer to small operators.
“It’s long overdue,” he said.