Do New Weed Laws Really Matter for Ganjapreneurs of Color?
Getting high is fine, but who's getting paid?
In December of 2016, nearly 2 million people voted yes on Question 4 to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. For some of us, the new law seems like a panacea to all of our pot-related problems. Having up to an ounce of bud in public is now legal, and you can grow up to 12 plants per household for personal consumption.
But all that sticky green is also generating a lot of paper—and the problems arise when you follow the money, and watch whose pockets it’s filling. The legal marijuana market in MA is projected to draw over $300 million in revenue by 2018 while medical marijuana could generate another $240 million by 2020. But who is really benefitting from these new changes to marijuana policy? What about the communities or color that were ravaged by the War on Drugs? Will the opportunity to become part of an industry that’s expected to rake in $1 billion by 2020 be equitably accessible to everyone?
Marijuana Legalization Remains A Gray Area
Like most laws, the laws surrounding marijuana legalization are couched in heavy, cumbersome language that makes it hard to figure out what exactly is legal and what isn’t. And it’s not just the public who’s confused. MA lawmakers are confused themselves as they continue to tweak and change cannabis legislation “gray areas” due to the shifting political climate and protests from anti-legalization activists.
Governor Charlie Baker recently supported the forcible closing of Springfield pot store Mary Jane Makes Your Heart Sing, which was giving out free weed samples after charging a $20 admission price. Even though selling weed retail will be good to go in 2018 with a license, Baker asserted that, trying to get around the gifting law “with delayed or disguised payments, contemporaneous reciprocal ‘gifts’ of money or items of value, or other sham transactions, will remain a criminal act.”
Since hearings first opened a week and a half ago, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy is reviewing 44 proposed changed to the law, some of which include reducing the number of homegrown plants from 12 to 6 and reducing the amount of marijuana someone can legally possess.
Believing the hype around the new law, as it evolves through incessant challenges and constantly fluctuating language, has been hard for many Boston residents. Especially so those living in areas historically policed most heavily for marijuana—areas populated mostly by people of color.
“Education and access are key,” says attorney Shaleen Title (photo above), who helped draft the law and was instrumental in pushing through marijuana legalization in Colorado and Boston. “The adult-use law addressed and improved many of the problems in the medical law, in my opinion, but there’s no point in the improvements if no one knows about them.” The racial disparities in the marijuana industry have gotten so bad that she recently wrote a column calling for reparations.
Sonia Espinosa, cofounder of the Cannabis Cultural Association, which helps get people of color involved with the “budding industry” of cannabis entrepreneurship, saw a similar problem. “There are a lot of laws and not everyone is willing to sit down and go through the language,” she says. “The language is foreign to a lot of people.” This is why she created #WeedTalk, a weekly video series that works to “translate (the law) into something visual and audible that people can easily digest.”
What About The Dealers Already In the Game?
What do these new laws really mean to those who’ve already been in the ganja game for a while? “I’ve been selling weed for almost 10 years now,” says *Smoke (who opted to have his name changed) “At first, when the laws passed, I was afraid it would cut into business since people can grow now in their house. But because the laws keep changing, I think a lot of people still feel better buying from their friendly dealer around the way.”
*Smoke isn’t too optimistic about where the new laws are going either. “Where is the incentive to go legit? There isn’t one, the state hasn’t made one. I sell weed to make extra money on top of working my other job—but now I have to pay the state in order to sell it legally?” Such concerns aren’t just his own—the same sentiment is echoed by a lot of dealers who don’t have a problem selling legally but are somewhat discouraged by the lack of a clear process to “go legit.”
“Making myself legal doesn’t really change anything,” says Roxbury native Byrd, an entrepreneurial videographer and dealer. “For the big dealers who are moving pounds and who have the money, getting a license to sell legally won’t be hard. But again, why would they do that? And what about those of us who don’t have capital to apply for a license?”
Byrd’s concern is valid for many dealers: “Getting a license is expensive,” he adds. “And who’s to say that you can get one since each city only has a limited number to give out? And will they really include us?”
Such sentiments are a perfect example of the very real concerns that lay heavy over people who are either in the game or who come from areas like Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, areas heavily impacted by the War on Drugs. Generational trauma surrounding law enforcement and drug policing is very real, especially in a city that arrests black people at nearly 3x the rate as their white counterparts for marijuana possession. Recent studies show that areas in Boston populated by people of color experience more marijuana policing than areas populated by white people.
Many residents of these heavily policed areas doubt whether people of color will truly be included in the economic boom that comes with marijuana legalization—or in the efforts to expand cannabis entrepreneurship. “The licensing process is crazy confusing and the info isn’t accessible to everyone,” says Byrd. “Not to mention, it’s already hard enough for people of color to enter the entrepreneurial sector.”
Barriers to Entry Remain
Lack of generational wealth, access to capital and racist, discriminatory loan practices are just a few of the issues that keep people of color out of the entrepreneurship sector in general. The cannabis industry is no different. Starting up a retail marijuana business will cost thousands of dollars and unless you’re already very familiar with Boston’s convoluted licensing process, things can get more and more confusing as you go further down the rabbit hole. A license is still necessary to operate either a retail marijuana shop or a medical marijuana dispensary. Luckily, Shaleen Title and her team made sure to propose limitations on licensing fees. “The fees are limited to $3,000 for an application fee and $10,000–15,000 for a license fee,” Title said. Retail locations won’t be able to open until July of 2018 and the number of licenses will be limited. Title clarifies that “municipalities will have to allow up to 20% of the number of liquor stores, unless the residents decide by a vote to allow less.”
Licensing is the way for cities to strictly control not only the number of licenses but where these licenses are distributed. Boston has a unique history of corruption and of using licensing to perpetuate classism and racism. For example, liquor licenses can add up to $500,000 of equity to a restaurant while drawing additional revenue. Yet liquor licenses have historically been concentrated in predominantly wealthy, white sections of the city, leaving communities of color underserved. Retail marijuana licenses, the most affordable license option, will undoubtedly become a point of contention in a city that actively persecuted marijuana users and sellers of color in the past.
The silver lining is that Title and other marijuana activists of color were able to draft a more inclusive marijuana law than the ones passed in other states. “It contains a provision requiring policies and procedures to encourage people from the communities most harmed by the war on drugs to be included in the industry,”” Shaleen told MASS APPEAL, “and also to positively impact those communities… The new laws also protect people with past marijuana convictions so that they apply for a license themselves, in contrast to the medical program.”
Exactly how the State will implement policies encouraging people from areas like Dorchester & Roxbury to participate in the industry remains to be seen. Until a consistent pattern of discrimination is recorded in marijuana licensing, activists like Shaleen and Sonia have little leverage for a law requiring that a specific number of retail licenses go to disenfranchised groups, much like the liquor licenses Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley campaigned for, targeting specific areas populated by people of color.
The second silver lining? The projected 2018 timeline for selling marijuana retail (the most affordable business option for those looking to break into the industry) could “give time for those people in the gray area to become more informed,” Sonia Espinosa says. “It also gives people who may not have the money to jump into the industry now to save money for the license fee in 2018 and this can create a competitor’s’ advantage”.
Will Legalization Go Up In Smoke?
Until the specifics of marijuana legalization get finalized over the next few months, it’ll be hard to say exactly where the new laws will take Boston. Retail licensing and its regulations still haven’t been drafted yet, and the long list of suggested changes to marijuana legislation will take the Joint Committee of Marijuana Regulation a grip to go through. Meanwhile, aspiring ganjapreneurs should take this time to become familiar with the laws that are already in place. “If more people know what they can and can’t do, that’s how ideas get created,” Espinosa says. “We have to think bigger than traditional”.
While the state finalizes marijuana regulations, both Sonia and Shaleen urge entrepreneurs of color to think outside the box. ““We don’t need to touch the plant to get involved in the industry,” Sonia says. “Cannabis is the future but so is technology and if you can combine them together, you don’t have to touch the plant.” Shaleen Title’s THC Staffing Group teamed up with the Minority Cannabis Business Association for a Cannabis Career Fair going down on April 6th that’ll help guide minorities into cannabis entrepreneurship. The fair is aimed at exposing all of the options available to those who want to get a piece of the action.
“Think more broadly than opening a direct cannabis business!” Title says. “There are far more opportunities in businesses that don’t directly involve the plant, such as technology, software and apps—or human resources and staffing, or sales of ancillary products, or financial tools and bookkeeping tailored to the special needs of cannabis. There are lots of needs that haven’t been filled yet.”
Activism is another important way to get involved with the cannabis movement without getting sticky resin on your hands. “There are hearings we want people to come out to,” Espinosa says. “Otherwise, you have these lawmakers passing laws and you have no idea what they are.” She stressed the importance of people of color taking the initiative to demand what they’re due in the eyes of the law by becoming involved in cannabis activism. “The law will require that measures be taken to ensure that the communities most affected by the War on Drugs benefit from the new cannabis industry. The language is there but it’s up to the people to say to the state, ‘Hey, this language is there—what’re you going to do to honor it?’”