On December 4th, two cannabis-focused panels on social equity and social consumption were held back-to-back at the Thomas Sullivan Banquet Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts. The event was hosted by Boston Bud Factory, Café Vert, and Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council.
Legendary cannabis activist Dick Evans kicked off the night by congratulating the crowd on coming this far from prohibition. He highlighted the importance of social consumption and criticized the pushback it has received, but also stressed that it’s an evolving scene. “Public opinion changes everyday. Whatever rules we make now could have a very short shelf life.”
Author Ezra Parzybok introduced the Social Equity panelists: Shaleen Title, Commissioner on the Cannabis Control Commission, Tito Jackson, ELEVATE NE Board Member and CEO of Verdant Medical, Sonia Erika, co-founder of Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, and Geraldo Ramos, CEO of Green Growers. Shaleen Title first gave the audience some context.
She explained that the CCC knew that certain populations were disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for drug crimes. It also recognized that those arrests can have a long-term impact on families and communities. Therefore, the CCC decided to define equity in two ways: geographic areas with a disproportionate number of arrests, and individuals with a conviction of drug possession or related to someone with a conviction of drug possession. The resulting programs, finalized in March of 2018, are the Economic Empowerment Priority Review and the Social Equity Program.
However, there have been obstacles, namely municipal-level resistance to cannabis business and a lack of capital. Title spoke bluntly, “When we wrote the law we were operating in this political system where the number one priority was protecting the communities that felt they had to be protected the same way they feel they have to be protected from people of color.” This produced an over-regulated system with expensive demands, like 24/7 security, that most applicants can’t afford.
Tito Jackson, who is also a former Boston city councilor, grew up in a Roxbury neighborhood that was disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. He supports expungement and went further to say that people who trafficked in the illicit market should also be included in the legalization process because they have transferable skills. He intends for Verdant’s staff to include people with past drug convictions to give them a chance at upward mobility.
Sonia Erika, co-founder of Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC), reminded the crowd that despite legalization, people are still in jail with charges of possession and, of the 72 provisional licenses given so far, zero have gone to minorities. While these sobering facts can cause anxiety and impatience, Erika urged audience members to take things slowly. “We have the ability as of now to grow our own and to gift…if we’re going to develop a craft, local culture, we really need to think about those two abilities…and expand on that so we can help those…in the illicit market to eventually transition” she said
Geraldo Ramos of Green Growers and an economic empowerment applicant, echoed Jackson’s concern about capital. Green Growers needs $700,000 in escrow to get the rest of the money it needs to get started. He doesn’t see that happening this year. Even in cannabis-friendly Holyoke he’s having a hard time raising money. The Latino population has been reluctant to help.
“A lot of Latinos are afraid to get into the business because it’s federally illegal and they’ve been attacked for so long that they don’t want anything to do with it [cannabis],” Ramos explained. He wants 51 percent of Green Growers to be minority-owned. Like Jackson, he is interested in helping people with criminal records to work for him. “Some are the best growers you can find.”
Ramos also suggested that economic empowerment certification be extended another year. “A lot of work goes into putting these applications together.” And money. He had to hire an engineer and lawyer to help with the process--and that is typical for applicants.
The next panel, moderated by Seth Frappier, segued smoothly from the first into a discussion focused on social consumption. Panelists included: Alex Morse, Mayor Holyoke MA; Kyle Moon, Summit Lounge; Karima Rizk, Café Vert; and Kamani Jefferson of MRCC.
In 2018, CCC approved social consumption and delivery-only license types, but there was pushback by legislators, including the Governor, so it was postponed.
Social consumption is considered an important part of social equity because many people are not able to consume cannabis legally at home, and public consumption is illegal. Jackson gave Roxbury as an example of a neighborhood where only 18 percent of residents own their homes: smokers in the other 82 percent of the population are left in a quandary.
For Kyle Moon, owner of Summit Lounge, social consumption is a natural extension of legalization and it may even add stability to the industry by bringing more opportunities. “Small farms will drop out as prices drop." he asserted. "The answer is social consumption.”
Current policy demands that towns opt into social consumption. This was seen as a potential roadblock by the panelists because it creates more work for town councilors and many may not bother or may not even know they have to do this. Holyoke mayor Alex Morse has encouraged cannabis businesses, but his power is limited and Holyoke city councilors have been zoning the businesses in areas that are not well populated. His vision is that cannabis cafes should be allowed to locate anywhere bars and pharmacies are permitted.
Ultimately, municipal-level fears and a lack of capital have crippled social equity in Massachusetts’ cannabis industry. Commissioner Title stressed that this has shown us how much power municipalities have and the value of getting to know local councilors and voting for allies.
There are examples of municipalities that understand equity. For example, Somerville is prioritizing cooperatives, economic empowerment applicants, and local residents. Cambridge is allowing economic empowerment applicants to locate within a buffer zone (allowed distance between cannabis businesses). And out of concern for safe spaces to consume, Cambridge and Somerville legalized smoking outside wherever smoking cigarettes is allowed.
And in regards to capital, the main message from the event was to innovate, whether it be working co-operatively or starting something completely new.
As Dick Evans told the audience, “The hard part’s behind us but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
About the author
Christine Giraud, a writer in Boston, is fascinated with the cannabis industry, and has been covering the culture, politics and history around it. She also writes about general health issues for publications like DigBoston.com and Paper Gown.