Communities question process for marijuana shop approvals: City calls for diverse applicants

The topic of recreational marijuana dispensaries in Boston is one that took over discussion at many community and neighborhood organization meetings across the city since recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2016.
It seems as though the frenzy of hearing proposals from prospective recreational marijuana shop operators has slowed down, but many residents are wondering what has happened to the proposals that have passed the muster from the City’s perspective.
According to city officials, Boston has approved 14 host community agreements in 10 different neighbor0hoods, including three state-certified empowerment candidates. Businesses labeled as economic empowerment businesses are required to, in some capacity (be it employ, be owned by, etc.), help communities affected disproportionately by the “war on drugs.” Pure Oasis, a shop proposed for Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, will be the first recreational shop to open in Boston and the first Economic Empowerment Candidate in Massachusetts.
Additionally, two medical marijuana sites are open for business in the City of Boston, and two additional recreational sites have received state approval process. Ten other companies are awaiting approval from the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), which regulates these shops at the state level.

Last November, along with City Councilor Kim Janey, Mayor Walsh signed an ordinance for new cannabis regulations in the City. The ordinance fosters racial equity and inclusion in this new industry and ensures that all Boston communities benefit from it. Boston is the first City in the United States to formally priorities diverse applicants who hope to participate in the marijuana industry.
Alexis Tkachuk, Director of the Office of Emerging Industries for the City of Boston, said that once proposals for marijuana shops have made it through the city’s process, they move onto the state process, which the city is not directly affiliated with. She said that according to state law, the municipalities that voted in favor of recreational marijuana have authority on things like the siting of the locations, but “largely this is regulated by the state,” Tkachuk said.
She said that the City of Boston has its own review process and role to determine to the best of its ability which proposals work best, but since these shops are ultimately regulated by the state, the City is held to the state’s timetable.
Tkachuk said that once a proposal has been approved by the City and moves onto the state process, the state does a more thorough search of financial records, background checks on those who will own the business and be working for the business, security cameras and parameters, as well as the coding systems proposed for the individual products so they are able to be tracked.
“We have largely been dependent on the time table of the state,” Tkachuk said. “We have had a couple of businesses start moving through the state process. We do feel that 2020 will be a big rollout year for recreational marijuana in the City of Boston.”
In the Fenway, MedMen’s proposed shop for 120 Brookline Ave. in the Fenway received a host community agreement on Feb. 7, 2019, and received zoning approval in March of 2019, according to Tkachuk.
A letter addressed to Mayor Walsh from the Fenway Civic Association (FCA) dated April 4, 2019, outlines several issues the organization has with the process of getting these shops approved. Currently, Boston’s zoning code requires a half-mile buffer between marijuana dispensary locations.
“The current process which designates the citywide number of dispensary licenses based on a parentage of alcohol licenses does not allow for the community to ask the question ‘how many dispensaries do we need and want?’” the letter reads.
Tkachuk said that by state law, the City of Boston is allowed to create zoning laws for marijuana that cannot be “unreasonably impractical.” She said the city was “not allowed to be too restrictive in siting,” and that’s why the buffer zones were set up—to avoid clustering in certain neighborhoods. Additionally, she said that is why there is a social justice component in Boston that takes a look at who is owning, operating, and part of an applicant team for these dispensaries, as well as calls for equity on where the shops are sited.
“We think we’ve drawn up some reasonable municipal law that is compliant that also allows for community input,” Tkachuk said.
The FCA also outlines in its letter that they feel some decision-making ability is removed from communities in the City process. “Since most applications will be denied at inspectional services and forwarded to the ZBA, and since applications are made on a ‘first come—first served’ basis, the ZBA is coronets with a difficult choice to either approve all applicants equally or to defer decisions to the state’s CCC,” the letter states. “Yet the state body is furthest removed from he constituency that is knowledgeable about and impacted by licensing, the communities who will be hosts to the businesses.”
Tkachuk said that the city system that is in place prevents a ton of applicants from going to the ZBA, since they must receive a host community agreement before doing so.
The FCA letter also states that “if communities who host dispensaries are aligned with he city’s goals to prioritize equity partners, they should have the ability to comprehensively review and select proposals that best reflect equity practices, whether in company makeup, hiring practices, or community benefits afforded through training or outreach efforts to communities harmed through the war on drugs.”
Tkachuk said that Boston is the first city in the U.S. to prioritize diverse applicants. “We feel that the system we’ve had in place from the start fosters racial equity and inclusion,” she said. She said that MedMen—the dispensary proposed for 120 Brookline Ave. in the Fenway—hosted a job fair in Roxbury and reached out to other areas that are disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana six months prior to the legalization.
“MedMen had started its local commitment to equity before city and state processes were in place,” Tkachuk said. She added that they understand the federal prohibitions on marijuana and immediately pledged $500,000 to the City of Boston to assist the City’s small business program, as well as partnered up with a local economic empowerment applicant team from Jamaica Plain, who will be 9 percent owners of the Fenway site.
“Their equity practices were certainly part of the consideration in that discussion,” Tkachuk said.
The FCA stated that “the first proposal to come before the city for the Fenway are defendants in an active legal suit. While the community should not discriminate against operators, it should have the ability to communicate preference for operators that meet the city’s identified goals for equity.”
Tkachuk said that while there was some internal shareholder dissent and the former CEO has been accused privately of making inflammatory comments, there is no active legal suit that would prevent efficient operation of the dispensary, and that CEO no longer works for the company.
Right now, MedMen is still in the state review process, and Tkachuk said she has no word of when they might open.
Lastly, the FCA letter outlines a number of other proposed shops at 62 Brookline Ave., 1114 Boylston St., and 252 Boylston St. Tkachuk said there are no formal agreements for any of these proposals in the neighborhood, and they have not moved forward in the City’s process.
However, the FCA states in that letter that they believe the current process “restricts community review and input, pushes important licensing decisions away from the city, and imperfectly addresses priorities around buffer zones, safety, and quality of life for neighborhoods.”
“We are actively working to assist those disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs,” Tkachuk said in response. “We have also signed agreements with minority-led companies and other diverse in ownership companies.”

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