Promote diversity in the marijuana industry


With recreational marijuana as the new hot industry in Massachusetts, expected to soon generate up to $1 billion in taxable revenue, it's easy to overlook its illicit past. Prior to the ballot initiative legalizing marijuana in 2016, anyone who wanted to use the drug was getting their supply illegally. Violators unlucky enough to be caught could be sent to prison for doing what licensed growers and upscale retail outlets are now being praised for.

With the industry now legitimized, the long-time operators of the marijuana supply train – otherwise known as drug dealers – have little to show for being the early adaptors in this growing niche. Because cannabis is still illegal federally, any startups or businesses wanting to enter the Massachusetts market need plenty of cash and access to capital. This lack of financing options for those looking to break into the industry means the small, largely minority communities who made up a disproportionate share of the pre-2016 marijuana industry are largely being shut out of the new, legalized Marijuana 2.0 industry. As reporter Zachary Comeau's cover story “Left Behind” notes, African Americans made up 41 percent of marijuana sale arrests in 2014 but now comprise just 4.2 percent of employees in the 2019 legal marijuana industry. And only 3.1 percent of marijuana business licenses in the state are minority-owned.

Observing this inequity, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission has designed a new social equity program aimed at providing training and technical services for those largely shut out from the industry post-legalization. The program specifically calls for applicants with prior drug arrests and was developed because language in the original 2016 ballot initiative called on marijuana legalization to benefit those impacted by the War on Drugs. Giving opportunities for smaller players and minorities to enter the industry makes sense, even though mixing ex-convicts into heavily regulated industry seems like an odd fit. However, it is helpful to remember recreational marijuana was a billion-dollar industry well prior to its legalization in 2016. Yes, it operated outside the boundaries of the law, but now a mix of evolved social values and new regulations say selling and consuming marijuana is now acceptable. If a potential cannabis entrepreneur's only legal transgression was selling marijuana before 2016, it seems fair for them, if they choose, to continue on in the industry as it turns legit.

Currently, Massachusetts is the only legal place to buy pot east of the Mississippi River, and while it maintains that distinction, the state has enormous revenue potential and can be a real leader in establishing best practices introducing this nascent industry to its citizens. Promoting diversity in the cannabis industry is a critical move, even though it gives one pause when it means recruiting some to the industry who have a criminal record. But we don't have to look back too far to see the inequity of throwing so many minority pot dealers into jail, compared to the state now reaping millions in tax revenue by de facto putting only the well heeled in charge of sales and distribution. This new effort to spread the cannabis business opportunities in a more equitable and diverse manner is a welcome effort.