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Boston should stop dragging its feet on marijuana shops

People line up on the opening day of sales of marijuana to the general public at New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton, Nov. 20.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images

As recreational marijuana sales take root in Central and Western Massachusetts, where the only two legal shops in the East Coast have opened, Bostonians are beginning to ask: What about us?

The city should be leading the way in licensing the retail pot industry and in making good on the law’s intent of steering new economic opportunities to marginalized communities. Instead, the city has been dragging its feet, increasing the odds that the eventual winners in the city’s marijuana business will be well-heeled firms.

More than any other cause, the failure reflects a fundamental lack of political will and vision in the mayor’s office. The ballot question legalizing recreational sales of marijuana resoundingly passed in Boston two years ago — with 63 percent of the vote — but Mayor Marty Walsh seems to still be fighting the ballot question. Recently he said that he hopes the “taxation’s worth the human toll.”

Whether or not Walsh likes it, though, legalization is the law. And the mayor ought to be working to ensure the law is implemented as fairly as possible.


“You don’t have to consume [marijuana] or buy it; it’s about who is going to become a millionaire out of this,” said City Councilor Kim Janey, who’s presiding over a hearing Tuesday about equity in the Boston cannabis industry. “What we don’t need to happen is another Seaport. We need to be intentional about how this rolls out, so that there is equity.”

Janey is not the only one who’s afraid that Bostonians of color will be shut out. Industry observers, other government officials, and entrepreneurs of color all point to foot-dragging and a generalized lack of guidance from City Hall as the recreational cannabis industry statewide inches forward. There is very little public information about how the selection process really works. What criteria does the city use to evaluate applicants ? Who has applied so far, and where? Can applicants appeal a decision, and if so, how?


Here’s what we do know: The city has established a five-step application process, which includes hosting a community meeting with neighbors of the prospective business location. Boston also enacted so-called buffer zones, with pot dispensaries required to be located at least a half-mile apart. The city has received more than 50 applications for pot businesses, and more than 15 public meetings have been held so far. The city has reached agreements with two recreational cannabis businesses, neither of which are categorized as economic empowerment applicants.

As to how diversity and inclusion is being considered, the city just announced that it’s adding language to both host community agreements already signed (and will add the same language to any future deals) that requires the companies to give reasonable hiring preference to qualified Boston residents. (Ascend, the company that signed the first agreement for recreational pot retail sales in Boston, is managed by a woman of color, which apparently was a factor considered in signing the host agreement, according to city officials.)

What don’t we know? There is still no accessible master list or map of applicants, and there is no guidance on how community input is informing final decisions.

Given the buffer zone requirement, it would be useful for entrepreneurs to have that information to strategize and decide on the best location possible for their business.


City officials said more information will come online eventually and that applications are being evaluated on the totality of the circumstances.

There’s plenty more that Boston can do, most notably making the selection process for licensing as transparent as possible.

Tuesday’s Boston City Council meeting is a necessary step.

The city has the rare chance to get the legalization of a recreational substance on the right track.