With cannabis revenue set to be assigned to communities of color, ‘how much?’ is key

The state Senate passed a sweeping cannabis reform bill in April that would invest millions of dollars into communities harmed by the War on Drugs, thanks to the persistent leadership of Senate Cannabis Policy Chair Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate Ways & Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, Senate President Karen Spilka, Dorchester’s Sen. Nick Collins, and the many legislators who have contributed to advance these reforms over the last five and a half years.

In addition to enabling cities and towns to authorize cannabis cafes, the legislation restricts and improves oversight on host community agreements between municipalities and dispensaries, which often go to the highest bidder and make it harder for local entrepreneurs to compete with well-financed operators from out of state. 

The bill also requires cities and towns to factor equity into their licensing process and incentivizes them to give preference to equity applicants with “the equivalent of an extra one percent impact fee when they approve those businesses.”

Perhaps most significantly, the bill includes a program originally proposed by Sen. Collins and Dorchester Rep. Dan Hunt to make grants and loans available to social equity and economic empowerment cannabis licensing applicants.

In May, the House passed a similar bill with one major difference, thanks to a successful amendment by Rep. Chynah Tyler to increase the percent of cannabis revenue allocated to equity programs under the leadership of Speaker Ron Mariano, Cannabis Committee Chair Dan Donahue, and Ways & Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz.

As the House and Senate negotiate differences between their bills, the main question is whether they will invest an equitable share of cannabis revenue in – of all things – equity programs.

Access to capital is the biggest barrier to entry to the cannabis market and this bill will invest millions of dollars into locally owned businesses, creating jobs and wealth for Black and Brown and other families in communities harmed by over-policing and the War on Drugs in Dorchester and across the Commonwealth.

The cannabis legalization statute calls for cannabis revenue to go to five priorities: public health, public safety, municipal police training, the Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund, and “programming for restorative justice” and related programs and services.

Nearly six years after legalization, we’ve used cannabis revenues to supplement public health and safety in the state budget, but have yet to meaningfully invest cannabis revenue in the restorative justice programs our communities deserve.

In 2020, I wrote in the Reporter that “To truly create [an] equitable… cannabis industry… the Legislature must commit itself to dedicating at least 20 percent of excess cannabis revenue back into communities as envisioned by the law.” 

While we’re a lot closer to that reality than ever before, there’s still more work to do. Right now, legislative leaders are deciding just how much cannabis revenue these programs, and these communities, deserve – and they need to hear from you.

The House increased its proposed cannabis equity funding from 15 percent to 20 percent, thanks to Rep. Tyler’s advocacy and the support of leadership. Unfortunately, the Senate bill only allocated 10 percent.

Now is the time to let your state representatives and senators know that you hope they will encourage the Conference Committee to fully fund equity with 20 percent of cannabis revenue in the final bill.

Given the compounding effects of years of criminalization and over-policing of Black and Brown communities over generations, it couldn’t be more urgent or more critical that legislative leaders fund the social equity financing program envisioned by Sens. Collins and Chang-Diaz and Rep. Hunt at the full one-fifth of cannabis revenue approved by the House.

If you think Dorchester and communities like it deserve their fair share of cannabis revenue, ask your state representative and senator to ensure the final cannabis reform bill funds social equity programs with at least 20 percent of cannabis revenues.

This progress would not have been possible without the relentless work of the legislators mentioned above, as well as advocacy by Shanel Lindsay and the team at Equitable Opportunities Now; Shaleen Title, Steve Hoffman, Commissioner Nurys Camargo, and other current and former Cannabis Control commissioners; advocates, and entrepreneurs.

To learn more about Equitable Opportunities Now and get involved, visit www.masseon.com.

Kevin B. Gilnack is a nonprofit public affairs consultant and principal of KG Consulting LLC specializing in human services and social justice communications and advocacy. He lived in Dorchester for 13 years and currently resides in Lowell.

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