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The rollout of the recreational marijuana industry in Massachusetts has been slow. And it has barely begun for two important sectors: minority entrepreneurs and residents of neighborhoods that have been disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs.
Take Mattapan, for example, on the southern end of Boston. More than 90 percent of the neighborhood's residents are nonwhite. Three-quarters are black. The state says Mattapan residents were disproportionately arrested for possessing and selling pot when it was illegal.
"We have thousands of young people from this neighborhood and neighborhoods across the city who look like me who went to jail over this," says former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson.
He says that's one reason he wants to open a marijuana dispensary in Mattapan Square.
Jackson is awaiting approval for the dispensary from the city and the state. If he gets approved, he'll be a rarity. So far, the state's Cannabis Control Commission has given provisional licenses to only two businesses that reported they're owned by minorities. That's out of a total of 118 licenses for marijuana businesses.
The commission reports the vast majority of people who have completed applications for recreational dispensaries are white. It's looking at ways to supplement its equity programs, including no-interest state loans and a more streamlined application process.
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Jackson ran for mayor in the city's last election. Now he runs a cannabis company, Verdant Medical — not your typical career change.
"The biggest reconciliation I had to have was with my mother," Jackson reflects. "I also realize that there are individuals who are against cannabis as a whole. And we heard from some individuals, and I get that."
He is also looking to open marijuana shops in Provincetown and Rowley, as well as a facility to grow cannabis in Rowley. Jackson has reached host community agreements with those communities but is still awaiting a decision by the state.
Jackson says he believes the marijuana trade that disrupted individuals and families when pot was illegal could enrich lives now that it's legal, producing jobs and bringing families income.
But getting into the industry isn't easy.
"The problem, really, is the barrier to entry is about a million dollars per store," Jackson explains. "And understand, this is an industry that is un-banked. You can't go to the bank down the street and ask for a loan, because it's not federally legal."
Jackson's company is getting capital from a Canadian firm that provides financial, legal and technical support to cannabis entrepreneurs. He says he's working with that firm to help other people of color get the same leg up in the industry.
He's not applying for his dispensaries through the state's equity programs.
Jackson has already picked out a property for his proposed shop on busy Blue Hill Avenue. Right now, there's a check-cashing business and a laundromat on site. Jackson says he wants to sell both medical and recreational marijuana there, and he is planning to have a lot of security.
"You would actually have to buzz in," he says. "Then when you walk into that first area, you would be carded. Then we actually have another room after that. You would then sign in. We'd check your ID again, then you would be on to the sales floor."
Asked about the location being next to a community health center and whether he's concerned about people passing the shop while on their way to get help battling substance use disorder, Jackson points out that there's a CVS inside the health center.
"The front door of the opioid crisis is a CVS. They sell Percocet, Vicodin, Dilaudid and OxyContin," he says.
As far as hiring goes, Jackson says he's looking to make up at least 20 percent of his staff with people who have nonviolent marijuana-related convictions.
"What I would like to see is the individuals who were arrested for this, they should be out of jail, and they should have an opportunity," Jackson says. "In any other space, you would call this transferable skills. They know about this plant. They know about the efficacy and they know about the different types. ... Those individuals actually deserve to be able to be in this marketplace and to be able to take care of themselves and their families."
He also wants most of his employees to come from the neighborhood.
"I would love for, you know, over 50 percent of our folks to be able to walk to work," he says. "That means ... that the dollars that come from this dispensary will go back into the pockets of the people who are in this neighborhood and community, and that is critical."
"This is about making sure that the doors of opportunity [are] open in every neighborhood ... and that we lift people who have been left behind."Former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson
As we're talking with Jackson, several people recognize him and fist bump him or wave. One of them, Yolanda Neal Harris, tells him she wants a job.
"I need work," Harris says. "Security, or whatever."
"Yes, ma'am," Jackson responds.
Harris tells Jackson she's going to hold him to his pledge to hire local people to run his cannabis shop.
"Local people of color," she says. "And then also, too, if it's legal, 21 and over, let's make sure it's like that for each neighborhood."
Jackson says he wants Boston and the state as a whole to become the "model for diversity" in the cannabis industry. Nine other states have legalized recreational marijuana, but Massachusetts was the first to mandate an equity program.
"This is about making sure that the doors of opportunity [are] open in every neighborhood, in every community, and that we lift people who have been left behind and lift communities that have been left behind," he says.
For more updates on the marijuana industry, join WBUR's Facebook group, Green Rush: Cannabis in Massachusetts.
This segment aired on March 4, 2019.
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