In 2016, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana and, this past July, the Commonwealth authorized retail sales to begin. Most cities and towns have responded to the new law by either banning cannabis shops permanently or imposing moratoriums that could last until the end of 2019. To date, two municipalities statewide have licensed retailers to open for business.
In Boston, we are following the will of the voters. We began accepting preliminary applications for retail marijuana licenses in April, and we expect the first shops to open next year. But we are also taking seriously our responsibility to give communities a voice in this process and achieve much-needed equity in this new industry.
Many know that I opposed the ballot measure in 2016, and I remain concerned about the impact that easier access to pot will have on the developing brains of our young people. But my personal concerns play no role whatsoever in how the city is handling the licensing of marijuana businesses. I am committed to implementing the law in a manner that is timely, equitable, and respectful of the voters and the community.
Cities in Colorado and California with legal cannabis sales have run into serious equity problems, in both where facilities are sited and who is profiting from them. We are dedicated to learning from these experiences, avoiding those problems, and creating a new national model for this emerging industry.
We are making sure that retail establishments are spaced appropriately across our city, and that abutters and surrounding neighbors can understand the likely impacts of such businesses, assess any proponent’s plan for mitigating them, and have meaningful input into host community agreements.
In addition, we are working to ensure that communities that suffered the most under the so-called war on drugs have access to the new economic opportunities represented by legal marijuana. We require all applicants to demonstrate that they are prioritizing diversity and inclusion in their plans, from top to bottom. For example, the first company we selected to execute a host community agreement is headed by a woman of color and has created a partnership with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department to hire former inmates as workers. The shop is expected to open in the North Station area sometime next year.
However, significant barriers remain to ownership opportunities for entrepreneurs from local communities of color. Startup costs are steep, and because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, traditional lenders do not extend capital to cannabis enterprises. In addition, because our financing and technical assistance programs use federal revenue sources, the city cannot extend its full range of small-business supports in this industry. The result is that we have received very few viable applications from local entrepreneurs of color, or what state law calls “economic empowerment applicants.”
We are taking action to achieve the degree of equity that our communities deserve. For example, we are working to foster partnerships between established cannabis companies and entrepreneurs from local communities. In addition, we are calling on well-funded operators to create a pool of resources that would support ownership opportunities and workforce training for local minority- and women-owned small businesses.
Another option on the table is a requirement that one local “economic empowerment” applicant be chosen for every other applicant who receives approval. This “one-to-one” system of parity would result in a slower sequence of approvals. But we believe it is worth exploring every avenue, because equity is a value worth working for.
We are a city that pioneers social change and we are also a city that does things the right way. Before long, we expect that Boston will become the first major city on the East Coast to host retail sales in recreational marijuana, and we will set a new national standard for equity in this industry as we do so.Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston.