Pulling back the curtain on Boston’s marijuana licensing process
If you want to open a marijuana business in Boston, the city’s website instructs you to follow a few seemingly simple steps:
1. Fill out an application.
2. Apply for a conditional use permit, which will be denied, because no area of Boston is zoned to allow marijuana businesses by default.
3. Hold a public meeting at which neighbors can give feedback on your plan to open a pot shop or other cannabis facility.
4. I’m going to quote from the city here, for reasons that will become clear in a moment: “After the public meeting, you’ll work with the Office of Emerging Industries to negotiate a Host Community Agreement.”
5. “Once an agreement is executed, the City can schedule a Zoning Board of Appeal date to hear your case.” (Here, a city board essentially grants an exception to the zoning “violation” in step 2, and ensures that your facility complies with a local rule mandating a half-mile buffer zone between every licensed cannabis facility.)
Doesn’t seem too complicated, right?
But Boston officials left out some important information — a kind of hidden step: The city is currently refusing to let marijuana companies negotiate host community agreements and complete the process unless other marijuana firms, preferably with local and/or minority owners, have also applied to open in the same area.
The reason for the new (and essentially secret) policy of holding “non-diverse” applicants in “abeyance,” according to officials who declined to speak on the record, is that the office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants options.
In other words, instead of granting a host community agreement to the first company that happens to come along in a given neighborhood — thereby freezing out other cannabis businesses under the buffer rule — Boston would prefer to pick from among a more diverse pool of applicants.
On its face, that’s reasonable enough. After all, the Walsh administration has been criticized for its failure to make equity a more formal consideration in its selection process. It’s not hard to imagine that a “first across the line” system would favor those with the most money, privilege, access to prime real estate, and political connections — and indeed, officials said the first round of applicants wasn’t diverse at all.
Also, applications come in on a rolling basis, meaning the city could settle for an “eh” operator on Friday only to get a much better application on Monday from a second company with a better location, more parking, or more diverse ownership.
But marijuana operators trying to open in Boston have a few, understandable problems with this relatively ad-hoc system. Chief among them: no one told them this was the system.
Until now, the city has never publicly disclosed the multiple-applicant requirement. And it’s not clear that officials notify affected companies. One pot firm said it spent months fruitlessly begging Boston’s “Office of Emerging Industries” — a sort-of “agency” whose director, Alexis Finneran Tkachuk, is also its only employee — for a meeting about its host community agreement but getting no response, all the while paying pricey rent on an empty storefront.
“For two months, I was calling and emailing Alexis and I didn’t get a single response back,” said Colonel Boothe, co-owner of Holistic Health Group, which is trying to open a dispensary at 1548 Dorchester Ave. in Fields Corner. “She’s literally the sole gatekeeper for the host agreement, which is the next step we needed to complete. It didn’t make any sense.”
That echoes longstanding complaints by other operators and city councilors that the undermanned Office of Emerging Industries is hard to reach.
Finally, Boothe said, he cornered Tkachuk at a December City Council meeting, and she agreed to arrange a meeting the next week. He arrived expecting to negotiate a host community agreement, only to be told his application was on hold indefinitely while the city waited for other operators to apply.
“The website says, here are the steps, one through five,” Boothe said. “It doesn’t say anything about waiting until competition comes within our half-mile radius so the mayor’s office can choose who goes forward.”
Tkachuk, according to Boothe, suggested Holistic Health Group reach out to the area’s city councilor and try to build more support with a neighborhood group near the company’s proposed store. But Boothe says that’s pointless: the group is dead set against having any marijuana facilities nearby.
“I told her, ‘you’re essentially deviating from the application process,’ “ Boothe recalled. “She said just wanted to make sure the city was selecting the right groups for the community. But what am I supposed to do? Pay $5,000 a month in rent indefinitely until she gets back to me? Or give up? This was two months ago and there’s been no communication, no schedule of events that needs to occur, nothing.”
Boothe, who is black, said his co-ownership of Holistic Health Group would add to the diversity of Boston’s marijuana industry. And like other operators, he’s frustrated that the city hasn’t articulated its criteria for which companies get held back and which go ahead. As far as he can tell, the Walsh administration is subjectively eyeballing marijuana companies to determine whether they seem “diverse,” rather than actually evaluating the makeup of their ownership and executive teams. Contrast that with the state Cannabis Control Commission’s equity and empowerment programs, which have clear, objective qualifications.
In a statement, Walsh spokeswoman Samantha Ormsby said ensuring equity in the city’s pot market was a “top priority.”
“The City of Boston is committed to ensuring the process is fair, transparent, and equitable for all businesses,” she said. “The Office of Emerging Industries works closely with businesses and applicants to make sure they get the support they need, and neighborhoods have a voice in the process.”
The city is also preparing to unveil a new batch of host community agreements with recreational marijuana businesses, several of which have some minority ownership.
As for Holistic Health Group, Boston officials said the company is drawing significant community opposition from various neighborhood organizations — in particular from the nearby All Dorchester Sports and Leadership (ADSL) group, which believes the location of the company’s proposed store is far too close to the front door of a youth program it operates. In fact, officials said, not a single community member has come out in support of the project.
Boothe’s answer? “Honestly, show me a neighborhood that will jump for joy about a dispensary,” he said. “We’ve been all over the state, and there aren’t many places where the neighborhood groups say they want one in their area.”
To be sure, the city faces a unenviable challenge in trying to balance efficiency and equity in a rolling licensing process. But there are other possible solutions, including the proposal unveiled this week by City Councilor Kim Janey, which would formalize how applications are evaluated and weighted and establish a more transparent five-person board to oversee the process.
And even if the current process is the best Boston can do, it’s troubling that the city isn’t communicating with applicants, didn’t disclose the hidden “wait for more competitors” rule, hasn’t defined what it considers a “diverse” business, nor given even a rough timeline to prospective marijuana businesses that are spending buckets of money on leases while they wait for the city to act.
Look: Maybe Holistic Health Group isn’t a good fit for Dorchester. Certainly, City Hall officials can’t ignore the strenuous objections of multiple neighborhood groups.
But they ought to be able to send an email saying so.