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Cannabis with a Conscience

News & Features | October 15, 2019

For those looking to get high on ethical weed, the opportunity may be coming to Massachusetts. On Sept. 23, 2019, the city council of Cambridge voted to prevent existing medical marijuana dispensaries from converting to recreational sales for a two-year period and instead will only allow ‘economic empowerment’ applicants to open for business during this time. This policy plays a role in the larger nationwide conversation regarding how to provide reparations for the communities most affected by the drug war as cannabis becomes legalized.

From 2000 to 2018, Black people made up only 22 percent of Boston’s population but were implicated in 66 percent of cannabis possession cases. This stands in stark contrast to White people in Boston, who made up 47 percent of the population but only accounted for 33 percent of possession cases, despite marijuana usage being consistent across racial groups. The Massachusetts-wide economic empowerment priority review program attempts to right these past wrongs in an important way. The program gives applicants who are racial minorities or live in communities disproportionately hurt by the War on Drugs priority over other applicants when applying for cannabis business licenses. 

Massachusetts mandated this in Question 4, the 2016 ballot initiative to allow recreational cannabis. The goal of such measures is to “actively engage people from communities of disproportionate impact and ensure their inclusion in the legal cannabis industry,” according to the Cannabis Control Commission’s website. “We now have the opportunity to redress the historical harm done to those specific individuals and communities,” the statement continues. Yet, the efficacy of these measures has been questioned in the wake of their implementation. 

Economic empowerment applicants are granted priority when seeking a license from the state. Municipalities, however, are not mandated to prioritize these businesses. In order to receive economic empowerment status, prospective business owners had to apply within a two-week window in April, 2018. Only 123 people secured licenses, and of the 22 recreational shops that are open in Massachusetts, none are owned by people with this designation. Considering the lackluster results of the statewide economic empowerment program, the laws enacted in local municipalities such as Cambridge are critical to ensure inclusion in this fledgling industry.

Closer to Tufts, Medford and Somerville are also enacting cannabis legislation with equity in mind. Medford is currently in the process of drafting a city ordinance which outlines stipulations concerning marijuana businesses within the town. After Cambridge’s city ordinance, all eyes are on Medford. In a statement to the Medford Transcript, Mayor Stephanie Burke said, “We want to really make it a local, small business person that has an opportunity to jump into this market.”

One small business that is eager to dive into the Medford cannabis market is co-owned by Kobie Evans and Kevin Hart. Evans and Hart are two Black entrepreneurs and the founders of Pure Oasis, a cannabis company that is set to open its first store by late October in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. This store will be the first recreational cannabis shop in Boston, as well as the first store owned by economic empowerment applicants in Massachusetts.

Both Evans and Hart lived in areas with disproportionately high arrest rates related to marijuana. Evans grew up in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner neighborhood, and Hart grew up in Baltimore and Virginia. In an interview with the Dorchester Reporter, Evans stated, “Growing up, I can visibly remember walking down the street and being slammed into a storefront by police, being asked for ID just because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time… this was normal for men of color in my neighborhood.”

While talking to the Observer, Evans stressed the importance of involving minorities and people of color in the cannabis industry. “It creates an opportunity for generational wealth, and those opportunities create a balance in society across demographics. I think that when you have a small group of people who hold a lot of the financial power, it creates an imbalance…So I think it’s important that it’s not just old white men who are profiting from the cannabis industry…it’s important that people who have been locked up for possessing cannabis also share in the financial benefit, once it became legal,” he explained.

This sentiment is echoed by a Tufts senior, who wished to remain anonymous. She said, “I don’t really smoke anymore, but when it comes to supporting small businesses, especially when they’re trying to diversify and get away from this mass White culture that’s kind of devouring PoC-owned small businesses…I would support just to support, because it’s fucked up.”

After succeeding in the Boston approval process, Evans and Hart have now turned their attention to Medford. Their next dispensary will be located at 479 Broadway St., a 20-minute walk from Tufts’ campus. Evans explained that the Medford location was chosen because, “Somerville, Medford, Cambridge, they all have this similar cross-demographic…you have Tufts University, you have a lot of progressive thinkers, you have people that voted overwhelmingly that they wanted [cannabis dispensaries] to be in their community. So it was…trying to meet the desires of people from Medford who wanted to see a shop open in their town.” In fact, 57.4 percent of Medford residents voted in favor of recreational cannabis, compared to 53.7 percent statewide. Cambridge and Somerville supported the measure at even more dramatic rates—71.6 percent and 75.7 percent, respectively.

Evans emphasized that municipalities are “pivotal” to the success of economic empowerment businesses. He told the Medford Transcript that he is wary of the potential for Medford to follow the example of cities like Brockton, MA. Brockton issued ten host-community agreements to cannabis businesses, and none went to members of the economic empowerment program. And Brockton didn’t overlook this group due to a lack of interest or viable applicants. In an interview with Enterprise News in February, 2019, Vanessa Jean-Baptiste, who is Black, Haitian-American, and an economic empowerment applicant, said she reached out multiple times to the Brockton mayor’s office and was ignored. “His people…kept telling me they didn’t know what was going on, and I had to wait,” Jean-Baptiste said.

This occurrence was not an exception to the rule. As municipalities look to accept applicants for their host-community agreements, they will prioritize those who are able to pay large sums of money, creating a massive barrier to entry for small and medium-sized businesses. There is a state law cap on payments from cannabis businesses to municipalities at three percent of a company’s annual revenue. Illicit agreements, however, contain promises of payments that far exceed the legal limit, often in the form of charitable donations to nonprofits. Currently, 79 percent of local cannabis contracts are illegal. There is no explicit evidence that this happened in Brockton, yet the events followed a similar trend of municipalities that have done the same.

Instead, Evans and Hart must hope that Medford follows the lead of Cambridge and Somerville in drafting its city ordinance. Somerville is one step ahead of Cambridge; on September 19, acting Mayor Katjana Ballantyne signed three host-community agreements for recreational cannabis shops in the town. The selections were made with equity in mind: the first business, Union Leaf, is owned by Laxmi Pradhan, a Nepali immigrant and Somerville resident. East Coast Remedies is majority-owned by Gladys Vega, a woman, immigrant, and Chelsea resident who ran a community empowerment initiative called the Chelsea Collaborative for 11 years. And the final business, New England Select Harvest, is majority-owned by Robert Gregory, a Somerville resident who also owns Redbones, a barbecue restaurant in Davis Square. The dispensary, to be located at 378-380 Highland Ave. in Davis Square, will be the closest business to Tufts, at about a 15-minute walk.

Students are likely going to be happy about the proximity but also about the chance to support PoC-run businesses. One first-year student who uses cannabis stated, “I think it’s always a good idea to support local businesses, and…I would pay a premium price just to get decent weed, as well as help out the local businesses around Somerville.”

Based on the timeline of other dispensaries, it will be between ten months and two years before any of the three Somerville shops are open. Once they arrive, however, it will be the responsibility of woke, weed-smoking Tufts students to keep them in business. So for those who can’t buy legally yet, look forward to your 21st birthday in eager anticipation.