A cadre of Dorchester civic, main streets, and health center leaders gathered Monday night for a discussion where they would have the opportunity to query city and state and city officials about the nuts and bolts of how the new cannabis industry might unfold in the neighborhood.
Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s director of emerging industries, and Steven Hoffman, chair of the state’s five-person Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) told the assembled from the jump that these are the early days in the process of refining regulations.
Hoffman spoke supportively of the idea that an attendee raised for a cannabis co-op designation, and said there would be meetings in the next few months to hash through differences in the medical and recreational regulations around buffer zones and other definitions.
“We’re not creating a new industry,” Hoffman said. “We are regulating an industry that has existed for some time.”
The neighborhood itself, as many noted, contains areas that have been impacted by the adverse effects of the war on drugs. Residents may face hurdles in pulling together the funds needed to begin acquiring pricey Boston property for potential shops, one of them being banks’ reluctance to lend money to an enterprise that is federally illegal.
“There is no net worth requirement, nor is there any capital requirement to get a license in the cannabis industry,” Hoffman said. He later added, “That being said, it takes capital, and I believe that one of the biggest challenges that we have as a commission is to help people reel in that capital.”
Organized by Marti Glynn of the Hancock Street Civic Association, the meeting attracted representatives from an estimated 30 local groups along with state Sen. Nick Collins, state Rep. Liz Miranda, City Council President Andrea Campbell, and City Councillor At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George. The session in the city-owned Strand Theatre was not open to the public nor was it widely announced.
The subject at hand was not opposition to legalizing recreational cannabis, which, officials noted, passed by a margin a few percentage points higher in Dorchester than the 2016 citywide vote of 63 percent. The purpose of the meeting, Glynn said, was to have a level-headed forum to clarify the rules and regulation around certain areas of concern, like buffer zones, security, and parking.
“The regulators involved believe that goal is best achieved in the format we’ve developed,” she wrote in an email to the Reporter before the meeting. “From my own perspective, the kind of mutual discussion that will hopefully open the door to a longer-term relationship with the agencies concerned can only be achieved with limited participation.”
She added that after the meeting, community leaders would go back and brief their respective groups on the discussion.
For all that, some civic associations, like the Ashmont Hill group, didn’t attend the meeting. “We somehow missed the notice and will be trying to get more information,” said civic head Vicki Rugo on Tuesday.
But Tito Jackson, the former city councillor, was on hand. He now works in the marijuana industry and his proposal for a medical and recreational dispensary in Mattapan was set to be the subject of a public meeting four days later. He estimated that the costs needed to start up a marijuana business would be about $1 million.
“It is critical that local folks in this community have these opportunities,” Jackson said. He highlighted the TILT Cannabis Inclusion Program that “offers financial and operational assistance to promote industry inclusivity amongst minorities, veterans and more,” according to a press release.
As far as how to promote equity in ownership and profits for these businesses, the Control Commission’s Hoffman said, “We have not cracked this code yet.” Requirements like hiring people of color in management and general staff and demonstrating plans to invest in local programming and training are a step toward that, he added.
In response to a question from Stan Jones of the Hancock Street Civic Association on how to guarantee transparency with these diversity requirements, Hoffman noted that they have public commission meetings every two weeks including a report from their director on licensing that includes statistics on ownership by ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and other details.
“People in our neighborhoods, in our zip codes, are struggling. They are feeling the effects of cannabis,” said Barry Lawton, of the Meetinghouse Hill Civic Association. “Some of them are in jail. Some of them are marked for the rest of their lives in jail because of cannabis. Now in what way can you repair it, within? Well, by funding and possibly getting 100 or 200 employees? That is some benefit. But the benefit to this community would be the profits that these organizations make go directly into funding programs in these zip codes.”
The CCC does not have “any control where the license applications are going to come from,” Hoffman noted. “Boston is slow, I agree, but that’s [down to] where people are applying for licenses from.”
In the long-term, he said, “where we are with eight licenses [statewide], we can't rush to any conclusions. If the situation looks like it looks today demographically three years from now, we will have failed. But we’re really early in this process. If we have this conversation a year from now, I expect we’re gonna see a much bigger concentration in Boston.”
The 17 percent statewide tax rate for recreational marijuana and the additional optional local sales tax of up to 3 percent go into general funds, Tkachuk said. Funds would be invested where there is need, so presumably if there were more dispensaries in a certain neighborhood, that is where the money would go.
Lawton and Glynn floated the idea of co-operative ownership or designated nonprofits that could keep the money in the local community. Hoffman was enthusiastic about the prospect of co-ops, where locals could pool resources into funding a shared business, although he thinks the Legislature would probably have to carve out a designation like they do for small community farms.
“But I think it’s a great idea,” he said, “and I will tell you we will work on it. I don’t know whether we can just do it, just make a regulation to that effect, but we can certainly work with the Legislature to see if that’s possible. I think it makes a lot of sense, and I commit right now in public that I will support that issue.”
Other issues raised included secure transfers and storage of cash and cannabis products, as well as general security concerns to, as Shirley Jones of Meetinghouse Hill put it, “protect the babies.”
All proponents who get community host agreements, which lets them move forward with their license applications, have thorough safety and parking plans, Tkachuk said. She and Hoffman added that local input from community groups are factored into the host agreements and taken into consideration by the Zoning Board of Appeal.
A few factors determine where a location can actually be sited. In Boston, there is a half-mile restriction between every licensed dispensary and a state mandated 500-foot distance from certain child-dense area unless the city decides to reduce that measure.
There is a difference between the broad 500-foot buffer zone from schools or “places where children congregate” in the medical marijuana language and the stricter brick-and-mortar K-12 school definition in the recreational language.
Glynn asked that the CCC veer closer to the congregation standard for children and define the locations more broadly. It could be tricky "but not impossible," she said.
In Fields Corner, for instance, a proposed site is more than 500 feet from the Boston Arts Academy building, but right across the street from the All Dorchester Sports and Leadership clubhouse. Local groups worried about its proximity to the clubhouse and adjacent park.
Hoffman said there will be public meetings and listening sessions over the next two months to reconcile language for a comprehensive set of policies for both medical and recreational regulations, which would start to be rolled out for review around March.
The Commission essentially left the existing medical marijuana language alone initially when it took took on oversight of the industry, as they wanted to limit disruption, Hoffman said.
“That was, by far, our most important criteria: to make sure nothing happened,” he said.
Tim McNamara, one of the owners of the proposed Fields Corner shop, was at the meeting and he asked if there has been any effort by the state or city to explain the product itself, why people use it for medical reasons, and the like. “The meetings that we go to, people are saying that people are dying from this, and they don’t trust us as a business to explain it to them,” he said.
The problem, Hoffman said, is the research isn’t there yet for them to be able to go out and explain it in good conscience. Beyond that, he said, “we are not in an advocacy role. I personally think over time what’s gonna happen is businesses are gonna open, they’re gonna be good community neighbors, they’re gonna generate jobs, they’re gonna generate tax revenue, they're gonna be good for their communities, and people are going to see that they're gonna be incredibly strict about health and public safety and over time it’s gonna become a normal business.”
Attendees asked about how the state tracks the funding for marijuana businesses. The commission asks for a thorough report and conducts background checks on applicants but puts only a redacted version of all applications online to protect individuals’ privacy.
Rep. Miranda raised the issue of the diversity of the district with its substantial Cape Verdean, Haitian, Hispanic, and Vietnamese populations and suggested that notifications of meetings and their contents be made available in a variety of languages.
“The information to those that have the lowest means usually does not trickle down, and so we know there’s just a larger problem that’s not being informed,” she said. “That’s why meetings like this are incredibly important. As you can see the room is very diverse… I think misinformation leads people to make inferences about something that they don’t necessarily understand because of the history that this community has had around disinvestment and disempowerment and drugs and violence, so they’re fearful, and they have the right to be scared because they haven’t been adequately informed.”
Glynn closed the meeting with the hope that the CCC and city could work with the community groups to ensure “timely, meaningful communication, and where we can provide you with input.” She added, “We feel that we have some unique skills, knowledge, and things to offer in this process, particularly around minority communities. I expect you heard some things in this room that you thought, ‘Oh, we’ve never heard that before,’ and that’s the role that we would really like to play.”
In general, Hoffman said they would be happy to come back to communities to answer questions, but the organizations need to be proactive about reaching out, as they are a statewide commission.
“We don’t want this to be a one-off,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say we heard anything new tonight,” Hoffman said afterward. “I heard kind of some amplification of issues like impact on local communities, traffic the idea of how the three percent that the cities and towns might collect, how that go back to the specific neighborhoods. Again, not new issues, but just amplifications of things that we were already aware of, and I think it’s great.”