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Black Entrepreneurs Call For More Equity In Mass. Cannabis Industry

A group of black entrepreneurs have launched a new coalition to push for more access and opportunities for minorities in the state's burgeoning recreational marijuana industry.

The coalition — Real Action for Cannabis Equity (RACE) — said it's frustrated with the lack of equity in the recreational marijuana license approval process. About dozen members demonstrated in front of Massachusetts State House Thursday afternoon.

"What we're trying to do with the coalition is to make sure that there's an equitable opportunity for people of color and those who have been affected by the war on drugs in the community to have a place in the emerging cannabis industry," said RACE co-founder Richard Harding.

By law, Massachusetts is required to make sure that communities disproportionately criminalized for marijuana are part of the new legal industry.

The state has a social equity program to provide training and resources, but it has been slow to get off the ground. There's also an economic empowerment program that prioritizes the license review process for some applicants. But many of those applicants have struggled to get through the licensing process.

To date, only two applicants from the state's equity programs have been issued licenses — out of 105 provisional and 79 final licenses issued. The first "economic empowerment" cannabis shop is set to open in Boston by late October.

Many of the struggles equity applicants have faced come at the local level. A major part of the licensing process is signing a "host community agreement" with the city or town where an applicant wants to open a shop. Without that agreement in place, the state won't review an applicant's license request.

RACE organizers say they're concerned that big businesses and medical marijuana dispensaries are monopolizing the local process and garnering more favor from municipalities.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime for many people in communities of color who have been affected by the fake war on drugs," Harding said. "And to that end, we're trying to do what we can to make sure that there's sound policy created to make that happen."

Last year, the Cannabis Control Commission called on municipalities to help diversify the marijuana industry by prioritizing people from marginalized groups, among other recommendations. Harding said cities have carried out the guidance in different ways, and he wants state regulators to provide more clarity and direction to municipalities around their equity policies.

Harding said cities and towns should streamline the local process, approve equity applicants at the same rate as other applicants, and put moratoriums in place where necessary to give equity applicants a set time period to establish their businesses.

Cambridge city councilors Quinton Zondervan and Sumbul Siddiqui have offered a similar proposal, which would bar anyone who isn't an equity applicant from opening a recreational marijuana shop in the city for two years.

"It's really to give equity to the economic empowerment applicant, so that they have a chance to establish their business because we already have four registered medical dispensaries that are operating in the city," Zondervan said. "So if we didn't do something those dispensaries would convert to adult use instantaneously and they would immediately dominate the market."

But another proposal by Cambridge city councilor Denise Simmons would allow currently licensed medial marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis if they contribute to a fund for equity applicants. RACE organizers criticized the proposal, saying it won't help level the playing field between equity applicants and big businesses.

The coalition said it's critical for local governments to have equitable policies because the billions of dollars potentially at stake represent a huge opportunity for disadvantaged groups.

"We're going to demand that everyone in the city, everyone in the state understands that we have a voice and we want a fair and equitable rollout," said Taba Moses, president of Green Soul Organics, which has a host agreement in Fitchburg for cultivation and hopes to secure a retail license in Cambridge.

RACE plans to also hold a demonstration at Cambridge City Hall Friday.

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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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