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How Mass. Plans To Create Equity In Its Marijuana Industry05:45
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A marijuana plant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
A marijuana plant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The state Cannabis Control Commission has unveiled a social equity program intended to help people who've been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs work in the new legal marijuana industry.

The equity program — the first statewide program of its kind in the country — will give people training and guidance.

So how does this work? Who qualifies? Here's what to know about Massachusetts' plans to create equity in the recreational marijuana industry:

What's the goal of the social equity program?

The goal is make sure those hit hard by the war on drugs are able to access and benefit from the legal marijuana industry. Black and Latino communities in particular have been disproportionately criminalized by laws prohibiting marijuana and the enforcement of those laws.

"The idea here is to create a form of equity where it's not about making sure that everyone is in the same exact spot, but it's about creating a level playing field where everyone has a chance," Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title said.

Why does Massachusetts need an equity program?

There are communities in Massachusetts that have been disproportionately harmed by the past prohibition of marijuana. A report by the ACLU of Massachusetts found sharp racial disparities in marijuana arrests, even though white people and black people had similar rates for using and selling marijuana.

And there's already disparities in the still-nascent marijuana industry in states where it's legal. The commission points to research that shows just 4.3 percent of marijuana businesses are black-owned, while 5.4 percent are Latino-owned.

It's important to note too that equity is included in the state's marijuana law; advocates, including Title, really pushed for that as Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana. The law requires the commission to encourage participation in the industry by people harmed by marijuana prohibition. 

So, who can apply for the social equity program?

You can qualify for the program if you have a past drug conviction, or are the spouse or child of someone with a drug conviction -- and you have lived in the state for the past 12 months.

You can also qualify if you live in an "area of disproportionate impact" for at least five years and have an income that doesn't exceed 400 percent of the federal poverty level. The commission has identified 29 of those areas in the state — including in parts of Boston, Revere and Lowell — based on a study of arrest rates.

How would the equity program help people?

The program will provide training, professional development and technical assistance to people. This may include one-on-one consultations, workshops or digital resources. So someone could get help finding a job in the industry, or get legal and financial advice if they want to start a marijuana business. Participants could also get licensing fees waived.

There are four tracks in the program:

  1. one for entrepreneurs;
  2. one for people who want to work in management in the industry;
  3. one for entry-level workers and people reentering the workforce after incarceration;
  4. and one for people in other industries — such as electricians, accountants or software developers — who want to get into the marijuana industry.

How does the equity program work?

Depending on what a participant wants to do in the industry, they'll get matched to relevant resources.

"We want the applicant to specify what their needs are so that we can meet them where they are," said Shekia Scott, director of community outreach for the cannabis commission. "We're not making this a one-size-fits-all program, which we know usually doesn't fit all."

The commission — which has a $300,000 initial budget for the program — plans to use vendors to provide the services for its social equity program.

And people will need to apply to get into the equity program. Those applications will open this summer with training expected to begin later this year.

Is the state doing anything else to help people who've been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition?

Yes. The commission has what's called an "economic empowerment priority." This basically prioritizes the review process for some people seeking a marijuana license — those who promote economic empowerment in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.

But some say the state's equity efforts don't reach everyone it should.

Gabriela Cartagena, a low-income college student from East Boston with dreams of opening her own marijuana business, has qualified for the economic empowerment priority — but doesn't qualify for the social equity program.

"All my friends, we all know of a drug dealer from East Boston who’s been arrested," she said. "[You wouldn't] expect that your neighborhood that’s been disproportionately harmed by drugs for so long isn’t considered [by the commission] as a community that's been disproportionately harmed by marijuana."

East Boston isn't designated as an area of disproportionate impact, though nearby Chelsea is.

Cartagena said that's "really upsetting because there’s so many people in East Boston who could benefit from this opportunity to get technical assistance for their entrepreneurial venture into the marijuana industry."

The commission may eventually include more communities as "areas of disproportionate impact."

How will the commission know if the social equity program is successful?

The commission will track certain metrics in its equity program, such as the number of people who get licenses and the number of people brought into the marijuana industry. The data will be released in an annual report. Commissioner Title said the panel doesn't have target numbers for participation in its equity program and will make adjustments based on the data it gathers.

Do equity programs like this one exist elsewhere? 

Several states have struggled with equity in their legal marijuana industry. But some cities like Oakland have taken steps to address equity by setting aside licenses for underrepresented groups and helping them navigate the industry. As mentioned before, the Massachusetts program is the first statewide equity program.

For more updates on the industry, join WBUR's Facebook group, Green Rush: Cannabis in Massachusetts.

This segment aired on June 27, 2018.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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