Amid discussions on how to tackle the illicit marijuana industry, cannabis business conference bars press

Cannabis Control Commissioner Britte McBride said the illicit marijuana market aided the circulation of contaminated and counterfeit products that stifled the legal market's growth in Massachusetts. Photo by Devyani Chhetri / BU News Service

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

BOSTON – High costs of marijuana, long queues outside pot shops and slow licensing are forcing many Massachusetts smokers to hit the black market for cheaper and faster options. After last year’s vaping crisis, the popularity of buying marijuana illegally has sparked a public safety concern. 

So why were reporters at the Northeast Cannabis Business Conference barred from attending a Wednesday panel discussing these issues?

Andrew Kline, director of public policy for the National Cannabis Industry Association, led to a two-part, two-day panel discussion Wednesday and Thursday.

The Wednesday session was attended by several law enforcement officials, activists and small business owners. Kline said the press was barred from the session to create a “safe space” for the stakeholders attending the conference.

“We wanted them to feel safe to share their stories without someone in the back recording it,” Kline said Thursday during the second part of the panel.

In Thursday’s session, which was open to the public and geared towards summarizing the discussions of the previous day, Kline said some of Wednesday’s speakers were criminally prosecuted for possessing marijuana in the past. He used the example of a fireman who started selling marijuana to make ends meet financially, but was criminally charged and served time in federal prison.

RachelRamone Donlan, a longtime cannabis activist based in Washington D.C., questioned the panel about their decision to bar the press. 

“I just felt that there was a lack of transparency,” she said to BU News Service. “A lot of people aren’t able to attend [the conference] so having reporters come here and having news to read about is important.” 

Donlan said that a large-scale business convention should be more inviting towards reporters rather than barring them because stakeholders were sharing personal stories. 

“People who come out to conventions to share their private story want their stories to be heard, and it’s only going to help them,” she said. “So by keeping the press out, it’s always a signal to the public that something is wrong and that we can’t trust them.”

The panel discussion dealt extensively with issues surrounding law enforcement’s role in regulating the industry, excessive incarceration and public health concerns. 

Sarah Gersten, the executive director of a group called Last Prisoner Project, former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis and Cannabis Control Commissioner Britte McBride were three of the five key speakers Thursday. 

Davis said a good way to remedy the issue of incarceration was to reframe and re-educate law enforcement officials on how they view cannabis and its related offenses. According to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, between 2001 and 2010 a black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than a white person.

Davis suggested that cannabis offenses should be viewed through the same lens as alcohol and tobacco offenses and called for collaboration with other public departments. 

“We need to think beyond arrests,” he said. 

A 2019 bill in the State House mirrors Davis’s ideas. The bill says that businesses or individuals found supplying illegal marijuana should be taxed instead of charged with a crime. 

“It’s financially powerful and better than locking up people,” Davis said.

Gersten touched upon solutions that could help transform and transition illicit businesses to legitimate, standards-compliant markets. She praised Massachusetts for being a leader in social equity models that could help with the transformation of the illicit market. 

“We need to provide capital, mentorship and training programs to build sustainable compliant relationships,” she said.

Commissioner McBride, who co-wrote a paper with Kline on vaping and its effects, said that a major threat posed by the illicit market was that it aided the circulation of counterfeit and contaminated products.

“It creates a situation in which well-regulated markets that provide tested products are challenged by illicit products in terms of safety,” McBride said. “That creates doubt about how well we can provide for a safe and tested product.” 

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