Boston Overhauling Pot Licensing Process to Close Race Gap

Half of Boston's marijuana licenses will go to companies from communities affected by the war on drugs

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Boston is overhauling its process of reviewing marijuana businesses to boost involvement of minority entrepreneurs in Massachusetts' burgeoning pot industry.

The City Council on Wednesday approved an ordinance calling for the creation of an independent Cannabis Board to oversee local approval of prospective marijuana businesses.

The proposal by Councilor Kim Janey also requires Boston to ensure that at least half of its marijuana licenses go to companies from communities affected by the war on drugs.

And it creates Massachusetts' first local fund supporting minority-owned marijuana companies, according to Janey and other city officials.

Boston's new Equity Fund will provide qualified business technical assistance. It will be financed through local industry fees.

Janey said the goal of the overhaul is to make Boston's "opaque and vague" marijuana business application process more accountable and transparent.

She said it also provides "economic justice" far not benefited from the lucrative legal pot industry.

"The evidence is clear: without intentional focus on equity, the status quo will prevail," Janey said as the council weighed her proposal. "Larger and wealthier companies will lock out smaller, diverse companies from our communities."

Activists across the country have complained that black and Latino business owners have struggled to break into the legal marijuana trade, often because of prior, drug-related criminal records.

Since Massachusetts voters approved recreational marijuana use and sales in 2016, more than 200 licenses have been issued statewide, according to the state Cannabis Control Commission. Only 10 are considered owned by minorities or disadvantaged populations.

Massachusetts' first two retail pot shops opened their doors Nov. 20, 2018, in Northampton and Leicester. One year later, there are 33 stores operating statewide, but none is in Boston.

Boston's ordinance sets a national standard for local vetting of prospective marijuana businesses, suggested Shaleen Title, a member of Massachusetts' Cannabis Control Commission that issues the state licenses required for opening a marijuana business.

"There's transparency, there are criteria that are fair, there are people in charge who are accountable for making those decisions, and there's financial assistance available," she said after observing Wednesday's vote in City Hall. "Those four things create a model that other cities and towns should look to."

Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh, whose office oversees the marijuana review process, has said he supports the measure, which now heads to his desk for approval.

Walsh's office didn't respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday, but Janey said the mayor plans to issue an executive order in the coming days creating the new oversight board.

The proposed overhaul also comes as federal prosecutors are investigating local corruption in Massachusetts' cannabis industry.

A federal grand jury has issued subpoenas to communities across the state, including Boston, seeking information about their compensation agreements with marijuana companies.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and others have voiced concern about the potential for abuse in the negotiation process between communities and companies, which is largely done out of public view.

Lelling's office recently charged Fall River's outgoing Mayor Jasiel Correia with extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana companies seeking to operate in his city near the Rhode Island state line.

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