New coalition targets racial equity in cannabis industry

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Unhappy with the dearth of minority-owned businesses that have secured cannabis business licenses and with the way Cambridge is handling the newly-legal industry, cannabis entrepreneurs and activists on Thursday launched a new coalition to push for equal treatment.

Real Action for Cannabis Equity (RACE) was founded to protect “opportunity in the emerging cannabis industry for entrepreneurs, communities, and workers of color.” The group said that it is “the nation’s first trade association specifically formed” for that purpose.

Of the 520 cannabis businesses that have applied for or received a license from the Cannabis Control Commission, only 24 or 4.6 percent are owned by people who self-identified as a minority, according to commission data. The Boston Globe reported that just two of the businesses holding active licenses are owned by people in the CCC’s program specifically geared towards promoting social equity in the marijuana industry.

And of the legal industry’s 5,300 employees registered with the CCC, about 74 percent identified as white and more employees declined to provide a race or ethnicity than identified as either African-American, Latino or Hispanic.

Before a business can even apply for a license from the CCC, it has to secure its local approvals and execute a host community agreement with the municipality, a process many entrepreneurs have said cities and towns use to pry a larger piece of the business’s revenue than the state law allows.

“On the municipal level, this is not unlike the Jim Crow laws or civil rights struggles of the past, whereby higher-level mandates for equity are being intentionally or irresponsibly ignored on the local level,” Richard Harding, an equity advocate and RACE co-founder, said. “Statewide, the voters have clearly called for legalization to be carried forth in a manner that promotes equity, but on the municipal level, from Brockton to Cambridge to Western Massachusetts, equity is being sabotaged.”

Though RACE intends to be a statewide organization, it is focusing its initial efforts on Cambridge. That city has been embroiled in a debate over how it will handle cannabis businesses, with RACE organizers alleging Thursday that “equity measures are on the brink of being ignored or wiped out.”

Equity is a central component of the marijuana law passed by voters in 2016 and the law as rewritten by the Legislature the following year. The law mandates that the Cannabis Control Commission adopt “procedures and policies to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities.”

Entrepreneurs who qualify for as economic empowerment applicants get priority when the CCC reviews business applications and the CCC has runs a social equity program to provide technical and financial assistance to prospective business owners from communities disproportionately harmed by past drug laws.

Amine Benali of Westland Gate Capital said he advises economic empowerment applicants as they navigate the various regulatory and political hurdles to open a cannabis business. He said it is critically important from a business perspective to make sure those applicants get off on the right foot.

“We understand the potency of first-mover advantage and we understand that coming in after the first mover has established a presence in the market would relegate the businesses to second-class businesses,” he said Thursday. “As such, we feel that operating in an environment that does not support priority for economic empowerment applicants would be an environment that legislates those businesses remaining in second-class business positions.”

At a press conference outside the State House on Thursday afternoon, Cambridge City Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui said it is crucial to make equity a major part of the city’s rollout of the marijuana industry to ensure that legal marijuana does not end up freezing out people of color and people from communities that have already dealt with the consequences of the War on Drugs.

“As we bring cannabis sales to Cambridge and elsewhere, we have an opportunity not only to answer an injustice but advance a more equitable future in a growing industry. We have to actively work to prevent the cannabis industry from becoming another chapter in a long history of racial inequality,” Siddiqui said.

Siddiqui and Councilor Quinton Zondervan have proposed an ordinance in Cambridge that would give economic empowerment applicants a two-year period of exclusivity during which they would be the only cannabis businesses allowed to open retail stores in Cambridge.

“That would give them enough time to establish their business before they have to compete with the RMDs and other well-financed business interests that seek to dominate the market,” Zondervan said. “That ordinance is now before the council. We could vote it through at any time and we intend to do so as expediently as possible so that the cannabis businesses can begin to open and operate in Cambridge.”

The Cambridge City Council has a meeting scheduled for Monday night and an official with the RACE coalition said the council could take action on the Siddiqui/Zondervan ordinance as soon as then.

The RACE coalition is launching a direct mail campaign targetting Cambridge “super voters” and will also advertise on Facebook, Google, YouTube and other website or social media apps with geofencing to contain the messaging in Cambridge.

The coalition will also hold a “silent demonstration” Friday afternoon outside Cambridge City Hall. Like Thursday’s press conference, the demonstration is planned for 3:30 p.m. “because, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people in Massachusetts were 3.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, despite similar consumption rates,” the coalition said.

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