Pubdate: Sat, 05 May 2018
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2018 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Dan Adams



 From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, industries across America are
struggling to redress decades of discrimination and boost the ranks of
minorities and the disenfranchised in their workforces.

But what if you could design an industry from scratch? Could you
somehow bake in diversity and fairness?

We're about to find out.

Last month, Massachusetts rolled out the country's first statewide
marijuana industry "equity" program, giving preferential treatment to
people who are typically marginalized by the business world.

One key to the effort: giving a head start in the rush for cannabis
licenses to companies that are led by or employ minorities, to people
with past marijuana convictions, or to residents of low-income
neighborhoods with high arrest rates for drug crimes. All other
companies that grow, process, or sell pot, meanwhile, are required to
help those communities, and are limited in the size of their
operations. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission will also
launch a training program for inexperienced pot entrepreneurs.

The provisions spring from a simple premise: People of color were
disproportionately prosecuted and jailed amid the nation's "war on
drugs," even though whites had similar rates for using or selling
marijuana. It would be unfair, proponents argued, to allow the
windfall of a now-legal cannabis industry to flow only to the already
privileged, while those who suffered the most under pot prohibition
remain frozen out.

"We're going to use this moment to try to rebalance the scales - or,
at the very least, to stop creating new unbalanced scales,'' said
state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who helped to write the so-called
equity provisions into state law.

While it may seem radical to give previously incarcerated people the
right to sell a product that was illegal until recently, the equity
provisions so far haven't been particularly controversial. Even
Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, a fierce critic of legal
marijuana, is on board.

"It's going to open the door for people who just wouldn't otherwise
have the ability and financial background to break in," Carmichael
said. "We have to give them a chance."

As the commission developed its regulations this year, county
prosecutors asked the agency to bar people convicted of trafficking
certain still-illegal drugs such as heroin or fentanyl from even
working at a cannabis company. "This is not an area for
permissiveness," the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association
warned in a letter. The cannabis commission partially acquiesced,
restricting such people to administrative positions that don't
involving handling marijuana products.

For owners of cannabis businesses, the bar is higher than for their
employees. People convicted of serious crimes, including nonmarijuana
drug felonies, firearm violations, and sex offenses, cannot own
licensed pot companies. However, businesses can hire people with
records for possessing opioids, for example, and receive preferential
treatment if they employ enough people with criminal records.

People convicted of large-scale marijuana trafficking may qualify
under the rules, though some might have related convictions that would
automatically disqualify them anyway. The commission also has
discretion to reject any applicant.

Marijuana equity programs elsewhere operate only on the local level,
and have a limited track record. Oakland, Calif., for example, this
year adopted a policy that reserves more than half of the city's
licenses for equity applicants, and most of the rest for large
companies that agree to host and mentor them. The system has indeed
helped people of color break into the business - but it's also drawn
sharp backlash from smaller companies that do not qualify.

Massachusetts has taken a less restrictive approach. The primary
initiative underway provides expedited review to applications from
companies that meet certain criteria - those owned by people from
places with high rates of poverty and drug arrests, for example, or
that employ mostly people with drug-related convictions. It's an
important benefit, as many Massachusetts communities limit the number
and locations of pot businesses, giving a big advantage to the first

Later this year, the commission will work with community groups to
develop a crash course in business planning and fund-raising for
entrepreneurs who were arrested or live in so-called communities of
disproportionate impact. Those entrepreneurs will also be exempt from
many state fees and will be allowed to open pot-delivery services and
lounges ahead of other companies if the commission decides to issue
those licenses.

One candidate is Armani White, a community organizer planning to open
a retail pot shop in Boston. While a college freshman in Connecticut,
White was arrested when campus police investigating an unrelated crime
found one gram of marijuana in his dorm room. The only black student
in his building, White recalled the officers calling him "homeboy" and
telling him of the other crime, "You're from Roxbury, we know you did

White, whose business partner was convicted for marijuana trafficking,
plans to hire others with drug convictions, and plow any proceeds back
into the community, including providing college scholarships.

"Getting some support to come up with a business plan and get funding
is so critical to having a successful company," White said.

Entrepreneurs who do not have drug convictions or arrests can still
qualify if they show their business will benefit poorer communities
with high arrest rates. For example, Dishon Laing dreams of opening an
alternative health center in his native Dorchester that would offer
yoga, vegan food, and cannabis. He, too, wants to hire people with
criminal records, and also plans to run drug education programs for

"Everything we do is connected to giving back," said Laing, a city
public health worker. "I know my partners and I will face stigma based
on being people of color and the industry we're in, but we want to
show that we're actually improving our communities."

Another requirement is intended to recruit nonequity pot companies to
the cause: All applicants must show how their businesses will benefit
communities hurt by the drug war. For example, Sira Naturals, a larger
medical marijuana operator that's seeking recreational licenses, plans
to host an incubator for equity applicants at its growing facility in

Licensed marijuana businesses must also write and adhere to a
diversity plan that promotes gender equity and the employment of
veterans, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

The commission also offers incentives: Companies that provide money
and mentoring to entrepreneurs from "areas of disproportionate impact"
can get the cannabis equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of
approval: a "social justice leader" label affixed to their product

State officials also have moved to protect smaller equity businesses
by banning larger companies from holding more than three licenses of
any type and capping each company's cultivation area at 100,000 square

All these advantages, however, may not help applicants overcome the
biggest hurdle: winning approval from local officials for the location
and opening of their businesses.

Somerville and other municipalities are considering local versions of
the equity program, but none have been adopted yet. Advocates are
worried established companies - such as existing medical dispensaries,
which are nearly all white-owned - can outbid smaller players by
offering communities generous financial packages.

"Cities and towns need to step up, or in a few years we'll see we had
this opportunity to put diversity into action and we failed," said
Ross Bradshaw, who hopes to open a pot business in a Worcester
neighborhood designated as an area of disproportionate impact. "There
are going to be municipalities that only allow three licenses, and two
are going to medical marijuana companies. That's less opportunity for
people of color."

Cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title, who championed the equity
initiatives, acknowledged they are hardly a cure-all. But Title is
heartened by the early numbers: 68 applicants approved for priority
licensing, and more than 100 more under review.

"We'll never be able to repair the damage caused by drug prohibition,
but these programs at least begin to help provide a fair shot," Title
said. "Think about having a conviction that was based on unfair
enforcement, and how that holds you back in so many different ways -
we want to make that right."
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