Senate bill aims to increase diversity in the marijuana industry

Cannabis sativa female

By Meredith Varner
BU News Service

BOSTON — One of Massachusetts’ greatest struggles throughout the legalization process for recreational marijuana has been expanding the pool of people who receive a license beyond wealthy white men.

The Social Equity Program was established through the Cannabis Control Commission in December 2018 to help those previously harmed by drug laws fill out applications and potentially receive a license.

There is an online portal where anyone who lives in a “designated area of disproportionate impact” or has a past drug conviction can be provided with training, technical assistance and mentoring, according to the CCC’s website.

Unfortunately, the program has not been successful. As of September, only two applicants from the program have been issued licenses out of the 105 provisional and 79 final licenses issued.

It remained unclear how many applicants there were, but in January 2019, Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston, introduced a bill to try to fix this disparity by increasing funding for the Social Equity Program.

Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, spoke passionately about the bill he co-sponsored and why he believes it is important.

“The recreational marijuana establishment has been open almost entirely to wealthy, white investors and business owners and put so many people of color at disadvantages.”

The bill, Eldridge said proudly, would not need any taxpayer money because it would create a social equity fund using 2% of the application fees, as opposed to the current equity program that the CCC funds through state money.

“We have a real explicit focus on social equity, but there is not significant funding set aside,” Eldridge said.

The bill remains in committee after a hearing in early October in which two people gave testimony on behalf of the bill, according to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, Chair of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy.

She spoke excitedly about the bill and the new committee she chairs.

“What we know at a year and change into the life of the recreational industry in Massachusetts is that we still are not seeing good results at all in terms of equitable participation and wealth-building for communities of color.”

Even so, Chang-Diaz applauded the CCC for their efforts in the Social Equity Program. She believes they are using all the tools they have been given and have been vocal with her about what they need to do better.

“The single biggest reason people are left out of the industry by far is money and access to capital because it costs about a million dollars to get a store open,” she said. “We do need to put some additional tools in the toolbox until we get this right.”

One of those tools comes in the form of Point Seven, one of six outside businesses hired by the Massachusetts government to aid the CCC in the Social Equity Program.

Point Seven is an Ohio-based consultancy that helps cannabis businesses in all aspects of their operations while also helping with the application and licensing components.

Point Seven’s Lindsay Dutch spoke about their specific role in Massachusetts.

“We’re participating in the Social Equity Program as a vendor to teach participants in the program how to successfully apply and help them through the licensing process,” she said.

Point Seven also offers courses on navigating the application process and the online portal for the Social Equity Program. Dutch said this helps applicants get their submission through successfully. 

Compared to other states, Dutch said Massachusetts has a much more robust social equity program than Colorado, even though many people, including Eldridge, do not think the state has done enough with the CCC.

The CCC declined to interview for this piece, stating in an email that “The Commission does not endorse legislation.”

Eldridge is hopeful for the future of the bill, saying that positive views of the recreational marijuana industry from Massachusetts citizens will help. 

“I am cautiously optimistic the bill will pass because you’re seeing in Massachusetts that crime is not being increased from recreational selling and people have positive views on the business,” he said. “But we’re just not meeting our social equity commitments in the law.”

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