Recently, the Boston City Council called several hearings to explore the city’s licensing and regulation of the cannabis industry. Whether would-be retailers want to admit or not, we have a messaging problem and real hesitancy on the part of many communities, include those who voted for legalization, to open retail cannabis shops. At the same time, even as officials in Boston’s municipal government are seeking to promote equity across industries and our city, the local process around the cannabis industry is felt to be inadequate by many stakeholders and difficult to access for those without abundant capital.
I voted in favor of the ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in order to help bring an end to the war on drugs, and I stand by that decision at the ballot box. It’s now the responsibility of government to implement the will of the voters in a way that that is restorative to communities while also well-informed by medical science. This means advancing equity in our treatment of the industry, acknowledging the legitimate concerns of residents and neighborhoods grappling with substance abuse, and offering reasonable regulation while avoiding stigma.
Unfortunately, many of the proposals now appearing in Boston neighborhoods are at best sub-par: poorly sited, lacking in diversity and visibly displaying their disregard for the community. Few, if any designated economic empowerment or equity applicants have made it through the first round of the process. Meanwhile, a number of less than stellar proponents have parachuted into Massachusetts and sought approval in neighborhoods like East Boston: one would-be cannabis business leased space next to an in-patient substance abuse treatment center without consulting the health professionals who staff the facility; another publicly announced it was disinterested in hiring local residents at a community meeting.
As the new industry emerges in Massachusetts, residents who know and are trusted in their neighborhoods, are best suited to open up shop. Enter Luis Vascos. An immigrant from Colombia, Luis has lived in East Boston for 25 years. He has a restaurant for the past 15 years with no incident. His children are born and raised here and his son is an Iraq veteran who will be his business partner. Luis has everything to lose if he does not get this right–there is no other place for him to go. He knew better than to grab the cheapest lease for two years without speaking to the operators of the methadone clinic next door. He knows about the EXTREME traffic woes we have in East Boston and has proposed a retail cannabis shop across the street from the MBTA Blue Line.
Following an extensive hearing on equity in licensing, the council will hold a hearing on the merits of using buffers to prevent siting of certain businesses immediately adjacent to substance abuse treatment facilities. It should be noted that the city is already deploying buffers under other conditions. In the absence of a clear and transparent local approval process with weighted criteria, the city has used zoning, which originated as a public health tool, to regulate the roll-out by physically spacing out businesses and avoid clustering in any neighborhood.
To ensure parity between industries and to avoid stigmatizing cannabis businesses, the hearing includes alcohol-related enterprises such as bars and liquor stores. The hearing is informational and meant to collect stakeholder opinions from entrepreneurs, health workers, residents and regulators.
Among the issues warranting more dialogue, the council is seeking information on:
- The merits of buffers as a regulatory device, given zoning’s origin as a public health tool
- How the city currently understands and tracks facilities with in-patient treatment services, e.g. facilities that may be licensed by the Department of Public Health
- The legality of local zoning, outside of clearly authorized 500 foot buffers from K-12 schools, and whether Boston’s zoning should treatment cannabis retail businesses similarly to other enterprises such as agricultural facilities
- Whether the city should regulate a nascent industry, cannabis, similarly or differently from the an established one (the alcohol / packaging industries)
- Appropriate considerations to ensure parity between industries if their regulation is substantially different
Boston can ensure a fair and equitable roll-out of the industry that acknowledges local concerns, including reasonable public health accommodations. Access to space and capital and procedural clarity have arisen as concerns from local industry participants, and any city regulation should certainly be cognizant of that. The city should be cautious, however, of companies that parachute in with a poor community process and without any regard for their would-be neighbors. The best entrepreneurs, people like Luis Vascos, will emerge out of the neighborhoods they hold dear.
Lydia Edwards is the City Councilor of East Boston