Marijuana equity programs in Mass. helping bridge social, economic gaps within cannabis industry

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission has finally begun issuing licenses to minority-owned businesses or to those disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Marijuana law in the state includes two equity provisions; the social equity program and the economic empowerment program. While both programs aim to bridge the gap between communities affected by marijuana prohibition, the criteria for each is different. The first license been issued to an economic empowerment program participant allowed the first pot shop in Boston to open this week.

Ian Woods is one of the 140 social equity program participants who has been turning his dream of taking a cannabis consulting operation to a full-scale retail business in his hometown of Brockton.

“Chasing the cannabis industry helped me realize that I could start any business, doesn’t have to actually be cannabis,” said Woods.

Woods, who has a felony marijuana conviction on his record, is being helped out by the program which provides professional training, technical assistance and mentoring for those most affected by marijuana prohibition.

Communities of color and immigrants, particularly Hispanic or Latino populations, have felt the effects of marijuana prohibition more than any other community. Not only is the incarceration rate higher for these populations but racial profiling has played a big role on stop and frisk policies across the country.

“We used to look up to the people who were on the corners, the guys who were sitting on the corners - we thought they were doing something,” said Woods. “They gave the presentation that they were somebody, we really looked up to them until we were about 15, 16, until we realized they were really bums.”

Woods says it’s important to him that, now that the dynamic is shifting, kids can look up to people like him instead of dealers on the street, knowing that now there is a more clear path to success illustrated by people like him.

“I ask him so many questions, I’d say over 100 questions and he never got annoyed with me,” said Alissa Nowak, who also has a felony marijuana conviction on her record.

Nowak says Woods has been a mentor to her as she navigates her own process. She is pursuing an MBA and looking to open a women-led pot shop in the South Shore.

“It really gave me the confidence to believe in myself,” said Novak. “I’ve very insecure, I can’t vote, there’s a lot of things surrounding my background that I’m so insecure about.”

And she’s not alone - many applicants worry their previous convictions and backgrounds could get in the way of turning a new leaf, but programs like the ones in Mass. exist to ensure everyone gets a fair shot at entering the industry.

“It’s okay to have your background and then want to persevere and do something and leave that behind you,” said Nowak.

While the CCC has issued licenses to applicants of the programs, obstructions on the municipal level have increased rent prices for commercial buildings.

“It’s been tedious,” said Woods. “I’ve had to sit down with a lot of groups. To be honest, it’s still ongoing, it’s gonna be an ongoing process probably for another year.”

A recent WGBH report showed that, out of the nearly 500-host community contracts reviewed, roughly two-thirds ask for more than the standard fees from marijuana applicants. The CCC has also received reports of other efforts to circumvent the law.

CCC Commissioner Shaleen Title says they have a plan for that where cannabis officials will provide pre-certification certificates for applicants that they can take to cities and towns.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re using people’s time efficiently and cutting down on the costs they need to spend on the application process,” said Title. “I think the most important thing that we can do right now is look around us at what is happening. There are about 40 stores open - you can visit them, you can walk around them, you can see there’s really nothing to be scared of.”

The social equity program is for applicants who meet the following criteria:

  • Individuals have been accepted after demonstrating they meet at least one of the following criteria:
  • Residency in a Massachusetts area of disproportionate impact for at least five of the past 10 years (income may not exceed 400% of federal poverty level);
  • A past drug conviction and residency in Massachusetts for at least the preceding 12 months; or
  • Marriage to or child of a person with a drug conviction, and residency in Massachusetts for at least the preceding 12 months.

The economic empowerment program is for applicants who meet three of the following criteria:

  • Majority of ownership belongs to people who have lived in areas of disproportionate impact for 5 of the last 10 years;
  • Majority of ownership has held one or more previous positions where the primary population served were disproportionately impacted, or where primary responsibilities included economic education, resource provision or empowerment to disproportionately impacted individuals or communities;
  • At least 51% of current employees/sub-contractors reside in areas of disproportionate impact and will increase to 75% by first day of business;
  • At least 51% of employees or sub-contractors have drug-related CORI, but are otherwise legally employable in a cannabis-related enterprise;
  • A majority of the ownership is made up of individuals from Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino descent;
  • Owners can demonstrate significant past experience in or business practices that promote economic empowerment in areas of disproportionate impact.

So far, the Cannabis control commission has approved seven licenses through the Social Equity program and 14 licenses through the Economic Empowerment program.

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