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Walsh, Janey cut deal on marijuana licensing in Boston

Boston city councilor Kim Janey.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council is poised to vote Wednesday on a historic ordinance authored by Boston City Councilor Kim Janey to completely overhaul the city’s process of picking prospective marijuana operators.

And depending on whom you ask, it’s either a huge disappointment or a big win for equity in the fast-growing industry.

Janey’s proposal, at its core, is intended to wrest unilateral control of the selection process from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose administration has implemented a system that some applicants call slow, opaque, and subject to political influence. (Indeed, some operators have been asked by the city to turn in any letters of support they have from elected officials.) Walsh officials counter that the 14 applicants to receive host community agreements so far are diverse in size and ownership, and that the city is doing its best to strike a tricky balance between neighborhood feedback, equity, and picking qualified operators.

Janey’s original plan, introduced in February, called for the establishment of a new, independent board with representative membership that would vote in public on which marijuana firms get to move ahead. It also established clear criteria for selection; a two-year exclusivity period for equity applicants, plus a 2:1 ratio of equity to other applicants after that; a fund to help train and support equity applicants; and a public registry of proposed marijuana facilities that would narrow the information gap between local entrepreneurs who may be unaware of other proposed facilities and big companies with wired-in consultants. (This last provision is important because city rules impose a half-mile buffer between every cannabis operation, so any proposed facilities within that distance of one another would be directly competing for a single permit.)


Now, here’s the big news, per Janey herself: After months of negotiations, Walsh’s office (which would have to sign off on any bill the council passes) has finally agreed to a compromise: Create the independent board, but instead of imposing an exclusivity period that might draw legal challenges from larger operators (as happened in Cambridge), allow any company to apply immediately while heavily weighting the selection process in favor of locally-owned equity firms. Meanwhile, the 2:1 ratio of equity firms to other businesses has been knocked down to 1:1 — which is still nothing to sneeze at, as it would ensure that half of the marijuana businesses in Boston are owned by or would heavily benefit local residents affected by the war on drugs. The revised bill would also call for heavy scrutiny of applicants’ true ownership, to prevent Big Cannabis from using residents as fronts to win a license, and put more than $1 million in marijuana company fees into a city-run social equity fund.


Those are major concessions. In particular, Walsh’s willingness to cede control of the process to an independent board is a somewhat surprising development that would drastically alter the landscape and application process for would-be marijuana store owners in Boston. And the large local equity fund would be a first in Massachusetts.

“We got almost everything we wanted. and I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done thusfar,” Janey said in an interview. “This is a big win for the city.”

Nonetheless, it’s starting to look like some of the Cannabis Control Commission-certified “economic empowerment” (or EE) applicants trying to open marijuana businesses in Boston will actually oppose the ordinance. They’re upset that in addition to boosting their own chances, it will favor applications from other residents who meet similar criteria (mostly having to do with coming from a community affected by the war on drugs) but lack formal EE status, which was only available during a brief window in spring 2018. A group of EE applicants is meeting today to discuss a strategy for influencing the measure before Wednesday’s vote to ensure that they alone get the first bite at licenses in Boston.


Unfortunately, Janey said, that stance is unlikely to fly with the mayor. While insisting she still personally supports a two-year exclusivity period — after all, she proposed one — Janey argued the deal on the table is a damn good one, and likely the best that equity advocates can hope for under the current administration. She also defended the decision to prioritize “EE-like” applicants who are not formally designated as such by the state, saying it’s unfair to exclude worthy entrepreneurs just because they weren’t ready to apply during the state’s short application window last year.

“I understand there are some economic empowerment applicants who are deeply frustrated by the slow process of getting their license — and I get that,” Janey added. “I share their frustration, which is why I’ve been working on this legislation for the longest time. But for every economic empowerment applicant, there are — what, two? three? four? ten? — others who didn’t know [about the brief 2018 application period] and are just as worthy and deserving. I have been prioritizing not just economic empowerment applicants but really people who have been disadvantaged, criminalized, and targeted by the war on drugs.”