Commentary: Diversity and equal opportunity are musts for marijuana license bidders in Dorchester

By Barry Lawton and Marti A. Glynn

The voters have spoken and like it or not, marijuana is legal in Boston. Given the newness of this industry, it is hardly surprising that everyone from elected officials to license applicants to community leaders feel as though they’re finding their way through a sea of confusion.

“One Dorchester” is a group of 32 civic associations, Main Street programs, and health centers who came together to sort through this rapidly changing landscape, to find accurate information to share with our community, and to work with state and city officials to improve the implementation process and ensure that the outcome is positive both for applicants and for the diverse residents of our Dorchester neighborhood.

On Jan. 14, One Dorchester met at the Strand Theatre with Stephen Hoffman, the chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, and Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s Director of Emerging Industries. The purpose of the meeting was to get clarity on the regulations and the process, discuss the impact on our community, and recommend solutions to help ensure smooth implementation.  By every standard, we felt this meeting to be a success. Both state and city elected officials were present and supportive and the discussion was a great beginning.

One issue that One Dorchester identified was the lack of access to capital for Economic Empowerment applicants. State regulations give priority to applicants from neighborhoods historically disadvantaged by marijuana regulations, but the reality is that it takes a significant amount of capital to start a marijuana business and our neighbors who meet the Economic Empowerment definition are unlikely to have it. This is a problem that both state and city officials acknowledged.

One Dorchester made two recommendations to address this problem. One was to expand the definition of cooperatives to include all types of marijuana businesses. The other was to use industry payments to set up a loan fund for Economic Empowerment applicants. Within 48 hours, Senator Nick Collins’s office reported that he had introduced SD-2157, a bill to apply the cooperative model to all other types of marijuana businesses. Recently, it was reported that legislation is being considered to create a pool of capital for these applicants.

Another issue is the availability of technical assistance for applicants. The regulations included a Social Equity program to provide this, but there has been no commitment to on-going funding. Sen. Collins took an additional step to solve this problem by filing a second bill, SD-1983, which provides that 2 percent of marijuana fees go directly to funding the Social Equity program.

One Dorchester strongly supports all of these initiatives and we urge the Legislature to enact them.

Mayor Walsh and City Councillors have been proactive in preparing for the arrival of marijuana businesses in our city. While the process has been too slow for some, and too rapid for others, ten host agreements have been signed and several others are under consideration. One Dorchester has some recommendations to ease the process for applicants and to ensure that neighborhood residents are heard.

In Boston, applicants must secure control of a building before they can submit a license application. Fairness should dictate that given the city’s buffer zone requirements, it’s essential that applicants know about other locations where a marijuana application has been submitted before they commit funds. This could be accomplished by publishing an up-to-date listing of the locations of submitted applications on the city’s website. The buffer zone is key to managing the marijuana industry in the city and should be enforced without exception.

Another difficulty applicants face is the city’s review period and the time-sensitive limits of a lease or purchase agreement. Applicants need on-going communication with the Office of Emerging Industries. The city’s review process is thorough and applicants are finding that they cannot keep control of the intended building without significant non-refundable financial outlays.

The city relies on the Office of Neighborhood Services community meeting to determine support or opposition to a particular proposal. Neighborhoods deserve a second opportunity to weigh in once the city decides to negotiate a host agreement. Boston neighborhoods should be included in the process to ensure that benefits accrue to the neighborhood through the allowed 3 percent community impact fee.

Barry Lawton and Marti A. Glynn are Dorchester residents.