The regulated cannabis industry is transforming an underground economy into a dynamic engine of commercial activity. But as the lines snaked around the first adult-use cannabis retail stores over the past month, something was obviously missing: participation in the industry by the economic empowerment community. Economic empowerment is a public policy goal that seeks to harness the emergence of regulated cannabis to help redress some of the egregiously unfair outcomes that were enabled by cannabis prohibition.
The numbers tell the story: Of the 247 current Massachusetts license applications, only four are certified economic empowerment applicants. It isn’t surprising that none of the 76 provisional and 16 final licenses granted by the Cannabis Control Commission are economic empowerment applicants. Only 3 percent of all recreational license applicants qualify as minority owned businesses.
The barriers to entry in the regulated cannabis industry are enormous, and for small and minority businesses they are often insurmountable. At my organization, Sira Naturals, it has taken millions of dollars, countless hours of my own pro bono legal work, and access to a network of successful professionals with significant expertise to get off the ground. These are noteworthy advantages not shared by most economic empowerment applicants.
Part of the purpose behind cannabis legalization is to reverse the trend of disproportionate impact that prohibition created. The authors of the ballot question and legislators who passed recreational cannabis rightly anticipated these issues by weaving economic empowerment objectives directly into the law. The Cannabis Control Commission and local cities and towns seeking to implement these legislative goals should be applauded for their attempts. So far, such approaches have focused on giving qualified businesses priority in the licensing process, reducing application fees, and creating social equity training programs. While such policies are a great beginning, they are not enough to meaningfully assist small businesses in earning revenue.
It’s time for the regulated cannabis industry to do what we do best: grow. The big players in the marketplace should partner with small cannabis companies that are being launched by economic empowerment applicants, social equity applicants, and women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses. We can use our established networks to help small companies get access to capital as well as to professional services like compliance, accounting, and marketing.
We are not talking about handouts. Instead, we can harness the power of the market by aligning economic incentives for everyone to succeed. Inspired by the efforts of the commission and the greater cannabis community, we recently launched the Sira Accelerator, a program that offers cannabis entrepreneurs an immediate path-forward in product development, slicing through barriers to entry, and accelerating them to profitability. We provide access to lab and kitchen technology, workspace, and executive mentorship. The Sira Accelerator also provides a path for retail and wholesale distribution that would take years for these small companies to build on their own. In exchange Sira takes a small equity stake in our participating companies.
One company in the program is 612 Studios. Founded by Leah and Sieh Samura, a dynamic husband-and-wife team, 612 Studios is at the forefront of creating real social equity and ownership in the local cannabis economy. Leah Samura has been a dedicated community technology instructor and program manager for local nonprofits in Roxbury. Sieh Samura is a combat veteran who served in the Iraq War, and a vocal cannabis consumer rights activist. This type of partnership between established market participants, and small players eager to get into the market is a win for customers, regulators, and policy makers.
Regulated cannabis can and should include small entrepreneurs — like the Samuras — who you would find in any dynamic startup community, from microbrewers to high-tech titans. We should be welcoming these innovators into the regulated marketplace, both to harness their expertise and to allow them to unleash their value potential. Our collective success will ensure the vitality of the regulated cannabis industry in Massachusetts and achieve an elusive public policy objective.
Michael Dundas is president and CEO of Sira Naturals, Inc., which operates three medical cannabis dispensaries in Massachusetts and was the first cannabis company in the country to start a cannabis business accelerator program aimed at economic empowerment startups, the Sira Accelerator.