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Activists call for equal opportunity in Mass. cannabis industry

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is sponsoring a discussion on Tuesday about what can be done to give people of color equal business opportunities.
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Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley wants to ensure that people of color have equal access to jobs and business opportunities in the Commonwealth’s emerging marijuana industry.

Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November, but there’s still a lot to figure out in creating new businesses.

Under the law, the Office of the State Treasurer will establish a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee the licensing of all marijuana businesses.

Pressley is sponsoring a discussion on Tuesday to develop recommendations on how the commission can ensure equal opportunities in this new economy for residents of color.

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“As the state treasurer's office is actively working towards implementation, and the legislature is considering changes to the law, it is critical that racial equity is at the forefront of this work and thoughtfully incorporated into all policies and regulations,” Pressley said in a statement.

A provision included in the marijuana legalization law specifically states that the Cannabis Control Commission develop “procedures and policies to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities.”

Shanel Lindsay, an attorney, owner of a medical marijuana device company Ardent Cannabis and a woman of color, helped write that provision with other activists of color.

"We crafted that provision because we were very, very concerned about howthere is almost no minority participation when it comes to this industry," she said. "And that (people of color) as agroup are disproportionately harmed and punished for cannabis infractions, despite equal usage."

Lindsay and other cannabis activists kept an eye on what happened in Colorado after it legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. They realized how the law continued to disenfranchise certain people.

“We saw that a huge segment of the population was prevented from even attempting to own a dispensary because they had a prior cannabis conviction,” she said.

To add insult to injury, Lindsaysaid, someone with a prior conviction that was not drug related could apply for a dispensary license after five years.

“The harm in what they’re doing, in my opinion, is taking the racism that existed under prohibition and transferring it to a brand new legal and economic industry,” Lindsay said. “Even people (of color) who were eligible to access the industry really weren’t, because of a lack of capital or how difficult it is for us to become professionals generally.”

The provision in the Massachusetts law states that a prior cannabis conviction cannot exclude someone from being involved in the industry (unless the conviction was for selling to a minor) and that the commission must help provide pathways to equal access and opportunity to get into the billion-dollar industry.

Of the 25 states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, fewer than one percent of licensed dispensaries and retail stores are owned and operated by people of color, according to a statement from Pressley’s office.

“No state has passed and successfully implemented laws or regulations to ensure racial equity in enterprise opportunities for this emerging industry,” the statement reads. “As such, Massachusetts is poised to be a leader in this regard.”

Pressley first held a hearing on the issue prior to the election to gather recommendations from local and national experts on racial diversity in the marijuana industry and to hear from business leaders and community stakeholders.

The discussion scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall is expected to glean input from individuals and organizations.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, is expected to participate along with Shaleen Title, founding board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, and Wanda James, president of Denver, Colorado’s Cannabis Global Initiative.

“If we are not proactive and intentional, I am concerned the same profile of entrepreneur, which has historically not included low-income, people of color, or women, will monopolize the market,” Pressley said in a statement. “Massachusetts has the opportunity to be a national leader.”

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