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Marijuana entrepreneur says her outbursts aimed at cannabis commissioners brought results

Alchemy League owner Leah Cooke Daniels, left, and her wife, Jacinth Cooke Daniels, say they are frustrated with the slow pace of marijuana licensing for the economic empowerment program, which was meant to fast-track the applications of people from communities disproportionately harmed by pot criminalization.
Alchemy League owner Leah Cooke Daniels, left, and her wife, Jacinth Cooke Daniels, say they are frustrated with the slow pace of marijuana licensing for the economic empowerment program, which was meant to fast-track the applications of people from communities disproportionately harmed by pot criminalization.Jacinth Cooke Daniels

A Boston entrepreneur said she waited 610 days in limbo with no answers as to why her application to open a marijuana shop was delayed — even though she was in a program meant to fast-track groups hit hardest by the war on drugs.

To vent her frustration, Leah Cooke Daniels interrupted two recent meetings of the Cannabis Control Commission, at times shouting at officials. On Tuesday, the commission said Cooke Daniels’s proposed Holyoke marijuana store, Alchemy League, would be recommended for a provisional license Thursday, a major step toward opening.

She said she believes that speaking out paid off.

“If the Cannabis Commission could’ve continued to ignore me and disregard me and my civil liberties and my opportunities to do business in the Commonwealth, they would’ve continued to do so,” Cooke Daniels said. “This should’ve been a very proud, happy, joyous moment and it’s sad that it had to be played out to this capacity.”

The dispute highlights long-simmering frustrations among some applicants who say the state has not kept its promises to give them a fair chance at earning a piece of the nearly $400 million-a-year industry.

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A commission spokeswoman declined to comment on Cooke Daniels’s assertions Tuesday, saying she would not discuss an application before the commission voted on it. She shared a staff summary of Daniels’s application that described it being reopened more than four times as reviewers sought additional needed information.

According to the commission summary, Cooke Daniels completed necessary steps in her application in the summer, signing a host-community agreement in July and a community outreach meeting in August. The commission received the needed response from Holyoke in October.

“The time it takes to complete the initial review process depends on the completeness of the applicant’s submitted packets, the time it takes to complete the background check, and the time it takes for a municipality to” verify that the business complies with local rules, the spokeswoman. She added the commission planned to improve transparency around its licensing process with new technology and guidance documents.

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According to the commission summary, Cooke Daniels completed necessary steps in her application in the summer, signing a host-community agreement in July and a community outreach meeting in August. The commission received the needed response from Holyoke in October.

The commission’s chairman, Steven Hoffman, previously told the Globe that he felt sympathetic to Cooke Daniels’s complaints but could not allow people to interrupt the panel’s official meetings, where licenses must be approved. In response to the interruptions, the commission scheduled a Jan. 23 forum to hear applicants’ concerns.

Cooke Daniels is among 122 people in the state’s economic empowerment program. The program is one of two in Massachusetts aimed at helping entrepreneurs from communities — particularly black, Hispanic, and low-income ones — that were disproportionately harmed by pot criminalization.

Economic empowerment offers faster licensing reviews, though some participants say the pace and results have been disappointing. A separate social equity program run by the commission offers training on business development and legal, tax, and regulatory compliance.

Cooke Daniels’s outbursts occurred at the commission meetings Dec. 20 and Jan. 9. At the meeting last week, Cooke Daniels was joined by about 20 other people who shouted: “No approvals until economic empowerment approvals.”

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“We didn’t expect it to be easy, but we didn’t expect it to be like murder-suicide,” said Jacinth Cooke Daniels, Leah’s wife.

So far, just six of the state’s 258 licenses have gone to people in the economic empowerment or social equity programs. Another four applicants from those programs — including Cooke Daniels — are up for consideration for a provisional license on Thursday. Commissioners typically approve licenses recommended by staff.

It takes 170 days for a typical retailer to move from a provisional license to opening, according to a Globe review of commission data.

Massachusetts was the first state to mandate that its cannabis regulators foster an industry that includes people from neighborhoods with high rates of marijuana arrests. Since the state’s 2016 ballot initiative passed, other states such as Illinois and Michigan have followed suit.

Cooke Daniels, who is black, said she experienced the devastation of drugs and their criminalization growing up in a Roxbury public housing development, raised by an uncle with a heroin addiction. Her mother died when Cooke Daniels was 3 and her father was incarcerated for 27 years, she said. She was surrounded by drugs but managed to avoid them herself and navigate toward a positive life, which included serving in the US Army as a medic.

Cooke Daniels said being part of the economic empowerment program felt more like a handicap than an advantage because she believes applicants were subjected to stricter scrutiny than other businesses.

“You’ve got to be the scum of the earth” in society’s eyes, coming from poor, neglected, and high-crime areas, she said. “All it did was give us a target to be disenfranchised from the Cannabis Commission.”

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She said the commission requested new information seven times, and each time she felt it was for items that other businesses were allowed to address later in the process. She said she watched other businesses breeze through the licensing process far faster than her business, and the delays cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The commission said that all applicants are held to the same standards and that those in the empowerment program receive priority review at all times, including after a request for more information.

In response to complaints about applicants’ wait times, commissioners have pointed to many issues outside their control, including opaque and slow municipal approvals, challenges in finding and securing real estate, and struggles obtaining financing.

But the commission does have control over processing times for applicants who meet all the requirements and transparency around their status, said Jim Borghesani, a cannabis consultant who helped lead the legalization campaign.

“They’re not simply ignoring anybody’s application,” Borghesani said. “It’s simply too slow all across the board.”

He acknowledged that well-funded applicants can hire consultants and lawyers to polish their applications and ensure their files are complete, while smaller businesses would likely lack that advantage.

Cooke Daniels and her wife declined to say whether they believed the interruptions would continue. “We don’t speak for the community,” Jacinth Cooke Daniels said.

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