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HomeLife In the BerkshiresOpening the Weedgates,...

Opening the Weedgates, Part VI: Calling BS on social equity

In the push for medical cannabis approval in 2012 in Massachusetts, and then to the passage of recreational in 2016, the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance and others stressed the racial and class disparities of the war on drugs. It is a fair guess that many of the more than 60 percent of Berkshire County voters who checked “yes” on the 2016 ballot question did so at least in part to help right these wrongs.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles examining the implications of the legalization of marijuana. Part IPart IIPart III, Part IV and Part V are also available.

Great Barrington — Wall Street analysts see the legal adult-use marijuana industry in the U.S. hitting $23 billion by 2022, and $50 billion by 2029. Predictions in Massachusetts are at around the $2 billion mark. All that cash, with no place to go—federally backed American financial institutions are not supposed to touch it. Maybe the banks’ victim status in the war on drugs will succeed in doing what few have done before: making us feel sorry for them.

Mitchell Lawrence of Otis, on the other hand, is easy to feel for. He spent two formative young adult years in prison for selling a joint in a Great Barrington parking lot in 2005. His freedom and bright future were exchanged yesterday for a teaspoon’s worth of today’s gold. Mitchell is the sort of person whose suffering Massachusetts set out to redress as it established the legal industry’s regulations. Multiply one Mitchell by 659,700—the number of marijuana-only arrests in the U.S. in 2017—and you get a sense for the gargantuan human consequences of marijuana prohibition and aggressive policing of the drug, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

It’s no surprise that the most persuasive arguments in the arsenal of legalization’s advocates take up the criminal justice angle. In the push for medical cannabis approval in 2012 in Massachusetts, and then to the passage of recreational in 2016, they—the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance and others—stressed the racial and class disparities of the war on drugs. It is a fair guess that many of the more than 60 percent of Berkshire County voters who checked “yes” on the 2016 ballot question did so at least in part to help right these wrongs.

Our Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission has been on the frontier in trying, at least on paper, to right these wrongs. On the upper right-hand corner of the CCC’s homepage, before your eye reaches “The Law,” it’s led to a link to “Equity Programs,” which enumerates the ways in which they are striving to rectify racial and income inequities vis a vis marijuana, and help those most negatively impacted by prohibition share in the spoils of the legal adult-use cannabis industry.

Applicants to the social equity program—would-be marijuana businesspeople—must have lived for at least five of the past 10 years in the community of disproportionate impact and not have an income that exceeds 400 percent of the federal poverty level; have a drug conviction on marijuana charges and be an in-state resident for at least one year; and/or be the spouse or child of a 12-month Massachusetts resident convicted on marijuana charges. (In Berkshire County, Pittsfield and North Adams are the communities of disproportionate impact.) Eligible applicants can be fast-tracked and supported in the licensing process to own an adult-use business. They may also apply as managers or executives in others’ companies, start out at the entry level, or offer “ancillary” skills such as inventing new products.

But notwithstanding the CCC’s social equity efforts or our voters’ good intentions, there is little evidence of spoils sharing or inequity rectification bearing out in Massachusetts. To the surprise of few, the recreational marijuana business has so far been playing out business-as-usual-style, with white men, mostly nonresidents, representing the bulk of the applicants for adult-use licenses thus far. Three percent of applicants are women, and 2 percent are minorities. But Boston and at least one of our own towns are trying to impact the business-as-usual paradigm and get serious about walking the walk in regard to social equity.

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey. Photo: Aram Boghosian/Boston Globe

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey, at the Feb. 6 Boston City Council meeting, proposed a moratorium on outsiders setting up marijuana shops within Boston city limits. If the state can’t do the job, she wants to compel the city to get serious about making those opportunities truly accessible to her residents. On Feb. 7, she tweeted, “If we’re serious about closing the wealth gap in Boston, w/ dealing w/ income inequality, w/ repairing the harms of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, we’ve got to be intentional.” Her rules change, which needs to go through further approval processes “would effectively impose a two-year ban on larger marijuana companies backed by outside money.

Were a similar ban to be enacted in Berkshire County, it would bring the bulk of our canna-momentum to an abrupt halt. Out of 18 recreational retail outlets that are either open now or in the CCC’s application pipeline, 14 are owned by non-Berkshire County residents. The 19th and 20th stores, the fifth proposed for Great Barrington and the second for Williamstown, are likewise proposed by people who would now perhaps be discovering a passion for all things Cleveland, had Ohio, and not Massachusetts, been the first state east of the Mississippi River to legalize marijuana.

Great Barrington Selectboard member Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

That fifth Great Barrington store cleared the first hurdle at Monday night’s selectboard meeting, where it—Community Growth Partners, owned by Brooklyn-based Charlotte Hanna—was granted a community host agreement. When they met beforehand to discuss her plans, selectboard member Kate Burke told Hanna: “I’m getting tired of seeing people with a ton of money come in with the goal of making money without engaging with the community. I have a tendency to vote ‘no’ because of that.”

Burke, like Boston’s Janey, is calling on the town to take a more proactive approach to ensuring social equity, though she’s not sure the form that will take: “The state gives businesses a social equity seal, a hiring local seal and green practices seal.We want to give financial incentives to businesses that are trying to obtain those seals, and take away those incentives if they don’t. The idea is that we could charge them less of an impact fee, or remove the impact fee, if they are obtaining the seals. We haven’t hashed any of this out yet. We could have said we’re only going to allow them if they meet these specifications. I’m hoping that will encourage people with less of a bank account to come in and start a business in Great Barrington.”

Hanna has a background in economic development programming and has promised to bring that approach to her business. Said Burke, though, “I don’t know how much I want to invest in more promises without seeing action.” In the end, Burke was one of two selectboard members—the other was Dan Bailly—to vote against Community Growth Partners, the first proposed shop in town to earn two ‘no’ votes.

The interior of Berkshire Hydroponics in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hydroponics

Tim Mack, originally from Otis, is now a Pittsfield resident, the owner of Berkshire Hydroponics, and an applicant to open both retail shop Krypies and cultivator Mass Yield Cultivation in the city. “I’m just an average person going for it. I will have Berkshire Roots, and the Bloom Brothers surrounding me. The smaller stores are gonna get together and support each other to compete with the bigger operations. We’re a band of brothers.”

Mack is in the build-out phase now, and hopes to eventually have full-time jobs for 20 to 30. “Everyone I am hiring—builders, engineers, electricians, contractors—they are all born and raised in this area. Carpenters, local engineering firm EDM, they are doing HVAC. Another local guy is doing my blueprints and designs. I tell anyone interested in applying I will help them. I’ve got a couple other people interested in getting into the industry … They [corporations] are just telling the towns what they want to hear.”

Some companies without roots in their proposed locations, though, sound great on paper, like Apothca of Lynn, whichoutlined thoughtful programs in its application’s Positive Impact Plan: a. Institute hiring practices that will prioritize the hiring of individuals from disproportionate areas with a focus on Fitchburg; b. Conduct industry specific educational seminars in cultivation, manufacturing, retail operations, and overall business training; c. Partner with or support organizations providing jail diversion and restorative justice programs; d. Provide financial mentoring services or host organizations providing these services; and e. Hold monthly informational sessions regarding the process for sealing and expunging criminal records.

Other plans sound not so serious. In response to: “Summary of plan to positively impact areas of disproportionate impact” Green Biz LLC, based in Seattle and proposing a shop in Pittsfield, wrote: a. Positively impact Pittsfield; and b. Raise awareness on the effects, proper use, and adult-use regulations of marijuana. a. Allocate funds for fundraising events designed to promote community engagement; and b. Distribute pamphlets to all customers in Pittsfield that explain responsible adult-use marijuana consumption and information on how to identify dependency issues and contact information for rehabilitation services if dependency issues exist.

It remains to be seen whether or not more Massachusetts towns and cities will work to hold cannabis businesses’ feet to the equity fire. Meanwhile, as of Feb. 3, there was nearly $32 million in legal marijuana sold in Massachusetts, 1.6 percent of the way to the $2 billion mark. But at least one would-be industry investor isn’t biting. Peter Greer, a longtime drug-reform advocate, said, “It just didn’t feel right. The people who got the shit kicked out of them aren’t reaping the rewards.”


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