A hearing about establishing equitable regulation in the marijuana industry in the City of Boston was held by the Boston City Council Government Operations Committee on Tuesday. The hearing, featuring numerous panels and opportunity for public comment, was headed by Kim Janey, the ordinance sponsor and city councilor for District 7, and Michael Flaherty, chair of the committee.
In her opening statement, Janey brought up the recent explosion of the recreational marijuana industry in the Commonwealth since its legalization, noting that, since sales began in November, it has generated over $54 million.
“The question now becomes, ‘Who will benefit?’” she said. “Who will have the capital and the technical know-how to get into the industry? Will it be those affected by the War on Drugs, or will it be those with a head start? Will it be local businesses or firms from out of state?”
The ordinance would launch the Boston Equity Program and the Boston Cannabis Board, which seek to amend the disparities in ownership of legal recreational establishments—the docket said that, to date, no minority-owned marijuana business has been licensed by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC)—by creating “procedures and policies to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry” for people from communities most affected by the War on Drugs. The ordinance notes that black and Latino people have been disproportionately incarcerated for non-violent drug charges as a result of the War on Drugs.
The equity program will allow applicants for licenses for establishments that have at least 51 percent of the ownership meeting a set of criteria, including but not limited to residence in an area defined by the CCC as of disproportionate impact; household income below 400 percent of the federal poverty level; and being of black or Latino heritage.
The first testimony came from Michael Ross, a former city councilor and attorney practicing within the marijuana industry. He noted the lack of diversity in the field, due in part to a short application period for people seeking a license through the Economic Empowerment equity program at the state level—applicants could only apply in April 2018 for a two week period.
Ross praised the City of Boston for taking initiative on the issue when he said the state would not. He further suggested that the city also adopt certain elements of the state’s requirements for an equity license.These would include considering the establishment or individual’s in-state economic impact and insurance that over 50 percent of the employees or subcontractors, in addition to the ownership, also meet the criteria required for the equity license.
He also suggested loosening some criteria required to apply for the program, noting that the Asian community and Mission Hill, a historically black community that has become gentrified, might not be considered a subject of disproportionate impact, which he disagrees with.
Jerome Smith, chief of civic engagement in the mayor’s office, and John Barros, the chief of economic development in the mayor’s office, fielded questions from councilmembers, mostly regarding community involvement in the founding of a new recreational marijuana establishment and the role the city council must play in such.
Frank Baker, city councilor for District 3, brought up that a lack of community conversation to precede an establishment’s founding is an issue.
Smith said that meetings surrounding this topic ought to be more focused, as people are not equipped to ask the “right” questions regarding the topic of a new dispensary in their neighborhood, especially because community members at the meetings often speak out against marijuana legalization itself rather than the topic at hand. People should be asking questions that they might of a restaurant, he said: hours of operation, community involvement, or security concerns, for example.
The question arose concerning the fate of medical dispensaries that had obtained their licenses when marijuana was not yet legal for recreational use in Massachusetts. While the city is invested in ensuring that such businesses can easily make the transition, the licensing and equity process must remain the same as it would be for any other business, Barros said.
“The regulation changed for medical, and we want to recognize the work they’ve done, we want to recognize their engagement, but they will have to go to the CCC for a different license,” he said.
Janey noted that greater discernment should come in the conversation surrounding half-mile buffer zones, which seek to limit the amount of marijuana dispensaries in a specific area, saying that the law could inequitably keep owners out if a space in a marginalized community is taken by a chain or otherwise.
Tito Jackson, former city councilor for District 7, said in his testimony that Boston should follow the lead of Cambridge, which allows economic empowerment applicants to build within the buffer zone, as he does not think building the 51 proposed dispensaries is feasible under this model, given the location of existing establishments and laws setting boundaries on the proximity of dispensaries to Boston’s many schools.
He also praised Barros for suggesting that licenses would be issued for dispensaries at a 2:1 ratio in favor of equity licenses.
“People of color are the majority in the City of Boston,” Jackson said, to applause from the crowd. “They deserve the majority of these licenses.”
He also said that people of color made up the majority of illicit distributors of marijuana before four months ago, and thus people of color’s share of the profits must not change simply because the law has.
The final presentation, a panel, focused generally on the disparities in the enforcement in drug law in the years before marijuana legalization and its subsequent effects on the legal marijuana industry across the country. Matt Allen, who sits on the Cannabis Advisory Board and works for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the War on Drugs is not over, noting that many “draconian” policies still remain that affect consumers of non-marijuana illegal drugs.
He recommended that the city take this into account when discussing past drug offenses in general. Allen compared the amount of cocaine that could lead to a serious offence to the size of “a few packets of sugar,” which elicited a fiery response from Baker, who warned Allen to not make light of a drug that he said destroyed many families and communities in the Boston area.
Photo Courtesy of Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons