Cannabis entrepreneurs who were targeted by the War on Drugs will soon be getting a boost from the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. An appeals court judge ruled on April 24 that the city’s historic efforts to prioritize disadvantaged cannabis businesses can move forward, after a medical marijuana dispensary unsuccessfully sued to stop them.
“Cambridge is the first and only city that has championed social equity and listened to its residents and advocates,” Saskia Vann James, a cannabis lobbyist and activist who worked directly on this equity effort with the city, told Filter. “We’re considered a wealthy town, but Black and Brown people during the War on Drugs were targeted regardless of where they came from. This is just the first step toward righting those wrongs, for people who were arrested to have a chance to open a cannabis business here.”
Cambridge will now prioritize only certain disadvantaged individuals applying for a recreational cannabis business license, for two years. The city has not yet opened a recreational cannabis dispensary.
A quick rewind: Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana in November 2016, and stores first opened in fall 2018. The voter-passed initiative specifically required that the state take steps to provide opportunities for people disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs to join the cannabis industry. The state then created its Economic Empowerment and Social Equity programs to fulfill that mandate.
But Massachusetts business owners and activists have criticized both state and local regulations that prevent smaller, less well financed businesses from becoming licensed to sell marijuana. Filter reported on the challenges faced by Kobie Evans and Kevin Hart, two Black men who own the first dispensary to open (in March) under Massachusetts’ Economic Empowerment program.
A major challenge for many cannabis businesses is signing a host community agreement (HCA) with their local government, a requirement under state law. HCAs have been poorly regulated by the state—resulting in some businesses being able to buy local approval or leverage political connections not available to smaller businesses.
In Cambridge, Vann Jones described a contentious political fight going back over a year, when she first started paying attention to how the city was creating its recreational licensing program. She was upset by how the proposals being discussed did little to prioritize equity for disadvantaged business owners. So she proposed some of the revisions that ended up becoming the equity ordinance.
Then she hit the streets, coffee shops, bookstores and apartment buildings around town to tell other residents about the plan. “I met people with arrests and others who wanted to be included in this conversation,” she said. “The most interest I saw was from consumers, while passing out flyers on Massachusetts Ave. People were surprised to learn we have a right to create social equity in this newly legal industry—it was a no-brainer for them. I would email them a template letter right away to send to the city council.”
Following the advocacy efforts, Cambridge city council passed a first-in-the-nation ordinance in September 2019. It stated that for the first two years, the city would only accept cannabis license applications from members of the Economic Empowerment or Social Equity programs. Backed by many locals, it was intended to make sure that when the first recreational businesses opened, they would be owned by the people targeted by the War on Drugs or otherwise disadvantaged.
But one of Cambridge’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries, Revolutionary Clinics, objected to the prospect of being excluded from the initial round of recreational licensing. The company sued the city in October over what it called “irreparable harm [through] substantial financial losses that are inevitable due to the two-year delay.” Wishing to expand its dispensary operations to include recreational sales, the company claimed the Cambridge ordinance violated state law.
Revolutionary Clinics scored an early victory in January when a superior court judge ruled in their favor, and ordered the city not to enforce its ordinance or exclude any businesses being considered for licenses. The city then appealed the ruling and indefinitely halted considering any licenses.
The situation shifted again with the latest ruling. The Appeals Court found that the city’s ordinance does not violate state law, and expressed skepticism that the ordinance would cause severe harm to Revolutionary Clinics’ business. In a statement, the medical marijuana company vowed to keep seeking legal relief.
So where do things go from here? Vann Jones said she is now focused on reforming state law to make the cannabis industry more inclusive and accessible in every town. That includes a bill that would create a dedicated social equity fund to provide money and other resources to disadvantaged startups.
But not all local cannabis businesses are encouraged by these outcomes. “[The legal battles are] delaying the successful rollout of an equitable Cannabis environment in Massachusetts, and hurting Economic Empowerment applicants that have been told that Cambridge wants to prioritize their participation and success, but are waiting an extremely long time to move forward with the process,” said Sieh “Chief” Samurah to Filter.
Samurah is a cannabis entrepreneur and part of the Economic Empowerment program, and has been paying rent to hold a commercial space in Cambridge since December 2018. His business has not opened yet amidst this whole situation.
“The way to build a healthy market is by supporting Economic Empowerment and Social Equity companies, not by illusory regulatory wins, or by picking policy and regulatory fights with [medical marijuana companies] that share our priority status, but have the resources for such battles,” he said. Though Samurah and Vann Jones surely disagree on tactics, the point remains clear: Massachusetts needs to directly support its disadvantaged cannabis businesses if it wants to create a healthier industry.