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First-in-nation marijuana program to redress war on drugs hits delay

(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File)

Massachusetts’ first-in-the-nation program to help people affected by the war on drugs join the cannabis industry hit a delay Thursday, as officials said they need to change how they select people who train hopeful entrepreneurs.

In a booming industry where it appears that nearly all the state’s 113 licensed business owners are white men, the effort is one of several aimed at diversifying who benefits from the new economic opportunities.

Now the social equity program — which drew 213 applicants — won’t start until late May or June, officials said.

That’s a disappointing delay of several months for people who are already at a disadvantage in the rush for pot business licenses, said Kamani Jefferson, president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, one of the initially chosen vendors.

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“There’s not one minority business owner [in the state],” Jefferson said. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

But leaders said the change would improve the program’s future.

Shawn Collins, executive director of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, said staff members first asked for vendor qualifications last fall, but recently realized that they needed to use a different contracting mechanism to hold the vendors to uniform standards in a “master agreement.”

“Time is of the essence,” Collins said. “Most important, in everything we do relative to this program, is our desire to get it right, do it correctly, do it in a meaningful way — not in any sort of half-hearted way that may ultimately jeopardize the long-term success of the program.”

In the meantime, participants will be offered courses taught by commission staff, Collins said. The seminars will cover topics such as regulations, license applications, inspections, ownership, municipal approvals, business creation and finances, and background checks.

Commissioner Shaleen Title, a longtime equity advocate, said the move didn’t set back the program, just changed its course. And, she said, it’s not surprising that a state trying something new would face challenges.

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While 10 states have legalized marijuana, Massachusetts was the first to include in its legalization law mandates to start a statewide equity program and boost industry participation by people affected by racially disproportionate marijuana arrests.

“It’s important to remember we’re the first state to ever do this,” she said. “Unlike with other things, where we’re the 10th state. We are going to have times where we are going to have to adapt and be flexible.”

To be eligible for the social equity program, participants must be locals and have lived in an area disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs in recent years, have a prior drug conviction, or have a spouse or a parent with a drug conviction.

The program received 213 applications, but only 111 were complete. Of those, applicants identified as: 47 black, 13 Hispanic, 11 farmers, six veterans, and three Asians. Only 30 were women — compared to 81 men.

Another previously selected vendor, Marion McNabb, CEO of Cannabis Community Care and Research Network, said she hoped her group could soon start training students in cultivation, extraction, culinary infusion and processing, and patient advocacy. Students would also intern in one of 51 partner companies, she said.

“We’ve already invested a lot of resources, but we will go back again and try to support the Cannabis Control Commission,” McNabb said. “Hopefully that work we’ve put in already will give us a leg up.”

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Commission chairman Steven Hoffman said he believes the equity program, along with others at the state and local level, will ultimately be successful in enhancing diversity in the ownership of the skyrocketing industry, which so far has remained nearly all white and male. On Thursday, the commission awarded its first final license to a woman-owned business, Caroline’s Cannabis in Uxbridge, according to Title.

Hoffman praised a proposed ordinance by Boston City Councilor Kim Janey, introduced Wednesday, that would give strong preference to companies whose owners were local, black, Hispanic, or were affected by the war on drugs.

“The cities and towns have a gigantic role to play,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to solve this problem. . . . It’s not something we can do on our own.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NaomiMartin.