At a City Hall ceremony, Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed into law Tuesday wide-ranging changes to Boston’s marijuana licensing process, saying the “landmark” rules will ensure transparency in the pot industry and help to “right the wrongs of the past” for those most affected by the enforcement of marijuana prohibition.
Under the plan, Walsh will cede unilateral control over which marijuana firms can open in Boston. Instead, a new board will publicly evaluate and vote on license applications from cannabis companies.
“Today, we have a tremendous opportunity to regulate this industry,” Walsh said. “This has been kind of a slow and steady process, and this process needs to be done right.”
The mayor was joined by City Councilor Kim Janey, who drafted the ordinance earlier this year and shepherded a revised version to a successful 12-1 council vote last week; City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Matt O’Malley; Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins; state cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title; and dozens of marijuana activists and entrepreneurs.
Walsh’s administration hasn’t yet determined when the new cannabis board will be launched or who will serve on it. But John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, said after the signing that it will be convened as soon as possible.
“There is no goal timeline except for expedient,” he said. “We want to make sure we get this done, get it done right, and get it done as soon as possible has really been the mantra.”
Alexis Tkachuk, the director for Boston’s Office of Emerging Industries, said the city is looking for leaders with various backgrounds, including those with public health and business experience and people who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
“We want to come up with the regulations, the bylaws, ensure that the board has all the tools that [are] needed,” said Tkachuk, whose office has — until now — chosen which marijuana companies will receive local contracts behind closed doors.
The new rules establish an equity program offering technical assistance and training for entrepreneurs who were arrested in the past for marijuana crimes or belong to groups or communities disproportionately targeted by police enforcing the prohibition of cannabis. The program would be funded with as much as $5 million in fees charged to marijuana operators over the next five years.
The ordinance also requires the city to approve equal or greater numbers of applicants who are eligible for the equity program, an attempt to ensure larger, investor-backed firms don’t crowd out local businesses.
“It is so important to make sure that communities that have been locked up are not locked out of this economic opportunity to build wealth in their communities but also to break the cycle of generational poverty,” Janey said. “And with both the mayor and the council emphasizing the importance of equity, that is what we are doing today.”
Tuesday’s press conference marked a somewhat remarkable evolution in tone, if not in opinion, by Walsh: The mayor had strongly opposed the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in Massachusetts, citing his own experience in recovery from alcohol addiction in arguing that cannabis consumption could fuel the opioid crisis.
Since then, Walsh has consistently pledged that he would respect the will of Boston voters — 62 percent of whom backed legalization in 2016 — and dutifully implement the law. However, he has continued to sound a sour note about the issue, saying last year, “I hope the taxation’s worth the human toll.”
Today, Walsh is still not a fan of legalization. But under pressure from an increasingly progressive City Council and dogged by criticism of the existing marijuana licensing process by activists and entrepreneurs, the mayor is repeating arguments long put forth by legalization proponents about the racial unfairness of the drug war.
“Better late than never,” said Shanel Lindsay, a cannabis businesswoman and attorney who attended the signing and has been one of the state’s most prominent advocates for equity in marijuana. “This has really been a momentous shift by him, to put real focus on repairing the damage prohibition did to our communities.”
“I’m hopeful this new ordinance creates a smooth, fair, transparent process that involves community participation,” she added.