A tidal wave of establishment money is poised to crash over the state’s cannabis industry, overtaking the advocates who spent decades eroding prohibition.
That was my takeaway after attending a marijuana industry panel hosted by the Smith, Costello & Crawford Public Policy Law Group on Friday in the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s swanky, 17th-floor digs with views of the Harbor.
The Chamber’s first formal foray into legal cannabis drew a standing-room-only crowd of perhaps 100, with staffers dragging in extra chairs from the lobby as the event got underway.
This was the suit-and-tie set, almost to a person. Sure, some were nu-pot-types who never fit the stoner stereotype, but most of the guest list was a who’s-who of longtime downtown schmoozers and power-brokers: ex-pols, attorneys, lobbyists and the like.
“This looks like a meeting of our insurance and finance group,” Chamber CEO Jim Rooney joked as he surveyed the buttoned-up audience.
“There was lot of debate about legalized cannabis in the Commonwealth,” Rooney added, “with members of the business community and the Chamber of Commerce on both sides of the issue. But as we all know, the debate is over. We now have a new industry with much commerce and much opportunity for growth and economic return. ...When you look around this room, you see serious businesspeople with legitimate business interests who want to take advantage of the opportunies in front of them.”
No need to mention now that the Chamber opposed last year’s legalization measure, I suppose.
Jim Smith, a lobbyist who was previously a state rep and director of the MBTA advisory board, kicked things off by reminding us that cannabis had once been in “almost every medicine chest in the nation.” The Chamber and other similar groups, he argued, “need to step up for cannabis to be accepted by the mainstream.”
Next up was a wide-ranging discussion with panelists Shaleen Title, Cannabis Control Commission commissioner, Chris Beals, president of Weedmaps, and Todd Finard, a real estate developer trying to invest in medical dispensaries. They were led by moderator Dot Joyce, previously a top aide of former Mayor Thomas M. Menino and now a communications consultant who’s working for a team trying to build on dispensary on Newbury St.
While a first for the Chamber, the chat would have been familiar to anyone following the industry: stigma, employment law, impaired driving, complications stemming from federal prohibition, and the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation were all on the agenda.
Title, a longtime advocate who agreed to the Chamber gig before she was appointed to the commission, was admirably (or, if you’re a reporter hunting for quotes, frustratingly) restrained in not speaking on behalf of the new agency. Still, she put in a plug for diversity in the new industry, noting the state’s marijuana statute explicitly acknowledges the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on minority communities. She also said the commission is in the process of setting up listening sessions and a website where the public can submit comments.
Title alluded to the fight over municipal on bans on licensed marijuana companies, saying the CCC might become involved by distributing educational materials to local officials on how the law works and what control it grants them.
One of the more striking moments: Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents Dorchester and parts of the South End and South Boston, made some pretty progressive-sounding comments on legalization, even as he cautioned that it would take time for people to get used to the idea. He even won applause for saying the drug was an alternative to opiate painkiller pills (shh, nobody tell Marty Walsh).
“In five years we’re going to look back and say we were crazy, everybody getting so upset like the world was going to collapse because a pot dispensary opened up around the corner,” Baker told the crowd. “It’s going to take us five years of so of a couple dispensaries opening up around the city... and then people are going to see that the industry isn’t going to make society collapse.”
A medical dispensary is currently seeking city approval to open in Baker’s district. According to the Dorchester Reporter, the city councilor told neighbors he will “stand with the community,” but essentially urged them to get behind the proposal lest another, sketchier group take its place.
In general, Baker said Friday, he favored a slow roll-out. “Let the industry take hold, then let people make their own decisions.”
Rooney, for his part, seems to be enjoying the attention around last week’s news that Weedmaps had joined the Chamber.
“I was recently spotlighted in [the industry publication] Marijuana Business Daily,” Rooney said to laughter. “That’s a keeper. That’s something I’ve already shared with family.”
Yup, life is good on the 17th floor.