CAMBRIDGE — After months of acrimonious debate, the City Council voted Monday night to ban existing medical marijuana dispensaries from opening for recreational sales for two years, in a dramatic effort meant to let smaller, local companies get off the ground without crushing competition from “Big Cannabis.”
The measure, approved on a 7-0 vote with two members abstaining, makes Cambridge a national leader in so-called local equity policies, municipal marijuana licensing rules meant to redress the excesses of America’s war on drugs.
Under its terms, only state-designated “economic empowerment” companies — those that are led by, employ, or benefit members of communities hit hardest by high rates of drug arrests — will be allowed to open recreational cannabis companies in Cambridge for two years. After that, existing dispensaries, participants in the Cannabis Control Commission’s social equity program, and firms owned by women, minorities, and low-income Cambridge residents could also apply for city approval. Other marijuana businesses would be permanently excluded.
“The black community in Cambridge has been severely impacted by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs, and it’s our responsibility to address that,” said Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who proposed the ordinance along with Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui. “If someone else can’t wait to open a business, they can go to Brookline.”
But Cambridge’s medical dispensaries are poised to sue over the plan, insisting cities and towns cannot legally delay or block their participation in the lucrative recreational marijuana market.
“We are very disappointed that the recent vote of the City Council has done little to advance the availability of [recreational] cannabis retail establishments in the city, and further stalls the will of the voters,” said Keith Cooper, the chief executive of Revolutionary Clinics, which operates a medical dispensary in Cambridge’s Fresh Pond neighborhood.
Revolutionary Clinics, Sira Naturals, and other Cambridge medical marijuana businesses had banded together to back an alternate proposal by Councilor Denise Simmons, under which they would have been allowed to open for recreational sales without delay if they donated $7.5 million to an independently managed fund for empowerment applicants. But the Simmons plan was shot down by Cambridge’s city solicitor, who opined that the city could not legally require one private business to direct money to another as a condition of receiving a local marijuana permit.
Cooper lamented that the council “cast aside” the Simmons plan, which he argued “would have funded economic empowerment applicants for years to come.”
But economic empowerment applicants hailed the exclusivity period as a national model that will force large investor-backed marijuana producers to do business with local, minority-owned retailers. They argued that dispensaries had already enjoyed a yearslong head start in the Massachusetts medical marijuana system, which had high capital requirements and produced almost no minority-run firms. For once, they said, it’s time for disenfranchised entrepreneurs to be first in line.
“We don’t want your money — we want the same shot you got,” said Taba Moses, an activist and entrepreneur who grew up in Cambridgeport and hopes to open a marijuana shop in the city, addressing the dispensaries. “If we lost this, companies could threaten to sue and bully their way in and say, ‘we have the right to open up no matter what,’ Now, people are going to say, ‘those who were hurt most by the war on drugs have a right to open up first.’ It lets people organize community by community, state by state.”
The ordinance was opposed by a handful of other empowerment applicants — mostly those with close ties to Cambridge’s medical dispensaries — who said they would have preferred the funding over the lack of local competition. “I see relationships with existing market participants like [the dispensaries] as the fastest way to market for economic empowerment applicants,” said Sieh “Chief” Samurah, an empowerment applicant who developed a product for Sira Naturals and called the moratorium “antibusiness.”
Some medical marijuana patients also testified against the Zondervan-Sidiqqui plan, arguing that a delay could shutter the dispensaries and cut off their access to needed medicine. Dispensaries “may be looked at as ‘big business,’ ” said Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance president Nichole Snow, “but it still would not be in the public’s interest to shut down an outlet patients have relied on for years.”
The debate prompted practically unheard-of animosity in Cambridge, with business owners and advocates on both sides accusing one another and city councilors of being shills for larger dispensary companies.
Tensions escalated earlier in the summer when the dispensaries hired a consultancy specializing in creating “grassroots” support for corporate-friendly policies, and brought several dozen supporters to a council meeting wearing “PATIENT” T-shirts and armed with scripted testimony.
Tempers flared again this month when an unknown ally of the dispensaries sent a mailer to city residents that included Cambridge’s official seal. A group backing the Siddiqui-Zonervan proposal countered with an inflammatory flyer calling Simmons’s proposal “the slave amendment. “I continue to take great issue with the vitriol, disinformation, and personal smears,” Simmons said Monday. She added that she supported strong benefits for empowerment applicants, but that the ordinance failed to provide them with needed funding — and could entangle the city in drawn-out litigation.
Siddiqui said she believes Cambridge will be able to mount a strong defense against any lawsuits, noting that cannabis commission guidance recommends prioritizing empowerment applicants.
“This is something I’m willing to get sued on,” she said. “This industry comes with an ugly history of racial oppression that needs to be addressed.”
Zondervan said the fight was by far the “worst” of his time on the council — but he and other supporters believe the struggle was worthwhile.
“We’re the same kids who played football in the streets when Kendall Square was just landfill, and got chased out of the MIT and Harvard basketball courts,” Moses said. “ Now we can put money back into our community and reinvest in ourselves. This moratorium says, we’re going to stand on our own two feet.”