Guest Op-Ed: School Buffer Zones Shackle Communities of Color from Economic Freedom

By Linda Champion

Creating drug-free school buffer zones sounds like a good idea. The disparate impacts of these zones led to the mass incarceration of thousands of Black and Brown residents. Now, this same failed policy is being used to prevent communities of color from opening cannabis retail shops in their own neighborhoods – denying economic opportunities marijuana legalization was designed to create.

As a former Suffolk County prosecutor, I know the profoundly disparate human and societal toll of school buffer zones—zones that our communities of color overwhelmingly fall within. In densely populated urban areas, smoking a joint on your “school-zoned” tenement led to arrest, conviction and mandatory-minimum sentences. For white suburban kids, it was just “kids being kids.”

Same behavior; disparate impact.

Boston’s school zones have been largely reformed but continue to materially block Black and Brown people from opportunities to create generational wealth in cannabis. Boston prohibits even the submission of an adult-use application located within 500 feet of a public or private school serving grades K-12 under the false pretense that the prohibition is a requirement of state law.

Boston does have a choice and the City Council has an obligation to support communities of color by creating buffers that work for all residents.

State law allows Boston to reduce buffers by ordinance or by-law. The State’s Cannabis Control Commission has itself acknowledged that overly strict zoning rules and large buffer zones sharply limit the number of parcels available to potential operators, favoring large corporations with substantial financial resources while disproportionately harming smaller, local companies.  Reinstating school buffer zones will significantly raise costs (and the stakes) for minority entrepreneurs. Today, liquor stores are often located in “school zones”. Why should cannabis be treated any differently? The City Council should ensure communities of color have a choice as to which cannabis companies should operate in our neighborhoods. Communities like Cambridge have already reduced school buffers to 300-feet, recognizing the restorative justice intended by cannabis legalization and how these overly restrictive buffers run counter to those goals.

Like Cambridge, the City Council also has a choice: choose to respect the self-determination of communities of color and recognize as people of color we are able to advocate and choose for ourselves.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has swelled to become the single largest, organized protest in modern history. While protests can inspire, our policy choices make them meaningful. The City Council has the opportunity to do just this; by acknowledging the failure of school buffer zones that shackled our communities.

Opportunities to create generational wealth have eluded communities of color. The economic opportunity a vibrant cannabis industry can provide to our Black and Brown residents will not be taken from us this time.

Because of Mayor Walsh and City Council President Janey, we can celebrate locally and nationally the symbolism of the cannabis ordinance’s passage. However, without further urgent action by the City Council, this ordinance will be a symbol of an unfulfilled promise, rather than a symbol of true restorative justice.

Linda Champion is a Black Korean American attorney and former Suffolk County prosecutor. She serves as an Advisor to the President of Whittier Street Health Center, Board Vice-Chair to CUE Realty, a wholly owned subsidiary of Urban Edge and an Advisor to Boston Showstoppers.

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