Cannabis commission eyes enhancements to social equity program, mentorships 

  • Flowering cannabis plants GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 5/17/2021 12:05:47 PM

BOSTON – While lawmakers in Connecticut and Rhode Island explore ways to legalize adult-use cannabis and also ensure social equity, regulators in Massachusetts are pushing further with their own programs to enable people disadvantaged by previous marijuana laws to benefit from the economic possibilities offered by legalization.

One bill in Connecticut would create a “social equity council” as well as a “Cannabis Equity and Innovation Account,” funding workforce development programs and offering grants with cash from potential cannabis excise tax revenue. Meanwhile, a bill in Rhode Island would create a “social equity assistance fund” to provide no-interest loans to business owners affected by past cannabis prohibition laws.

Both would create some form of commission akin to one in Massachusetts, designed to issue retail licenses. Another goal is to assist disadvantaged groups in getting a foothold in an industry where 81% of the founders or owners are white, according to a 2017 survey done by Marijuana Business Daily.

The social equity program is one of the Massachusetts commission’s most prominent efforts. Launched in 2018, the SEP provides classes and training for people looking to get into the industry, hailing from backgrounds affected by previous marijuana laws, including the nation’s “war on drugs.”

Black, brown and formerly incarcerated residents, as well as those from ”areas of disproportionate impact,” are eligible for the program, which works to meet a mandate in the Legislature’s 2017 law that amended the voter-passed measure legalizing recreational cannabis in the commonwealth.

Despite a pandemic, a temporary freeze on the state’s industry due to the shutdown, and having to go remote, the commission reported the program saw at least 280 participants make up its second cohort in 2020-21, up from last year’s 143, who completed various courses in entrepreneurship, management and more.

Expanding programs

The panel now hopes to start accepting applications in June for the next group, but as plans move forward, so too do hopes to expand the offerings already available.

During the CCC’s April meeting, executive director Shawn Collins outlined some of the projects and conversations in the works. Among them are plans to build on involving law students in assisting program members navigate legal questions.

“Last year, we worked with the UMass Law Community Development Clinic, where their students could participate with program participants in providing kind of a pro bono service for legal services,” Collins said. “Specifically, for equity program participants outside of our program scope.”

Collins indicated that discussions to expand the offering to include Tufts, Northeastern and Boston University have been in the works and that it is “something … we’re growing over time.” With the law students, the program also potentially fills a gap, as the commission cannot provide business consultations itself.

Boston University has also previously worked with the commission, via the university’s ”Cross-College Challenge” project, which has involved teams of students conducting market research and plans for program participants, helping to generate awareness strategies for new, potential businesses.

According to BU professor Seth Blumenthal, who has helped teach a ”Social Equity and Marketing in the Cannabis Industry” class within the project, the collaboration started in part with him reaching out to former CCC commissioner Shaleen Title, who until 2020 filled the social justice seat on the commission which was charged with advocating for the SEP and inclusiveness in the state’s cannabis sector.

Now wrapping up its second iteration, Blumenthal said the class gives students an opportunity to learn the importance of marketing research and interviews, as well as to hear from industry experts, and “ask them questions directly about the cannabis industry and where equity vendors need support when it comes to marketing.”

He said it also gives the university a chance to use its resources to help lift communities of color and equity applicants in the cannabis space.

“It’s funny, because last spring, the focus of the course was really trying to increase the amount of equity applicants; that was the problem,” Blumenthal said. “The problem this spring, it was, ‘how do we help (participants) market,’ thinking about that ‘after’ part.”

In the same meeting, Collins highlighted the development of a “mentorship tracker,” headed by interim director of community outreach Alyssa Flores. While mentoring on topics such as accounting, navigating local laws and cultivation are key components of the SEP classes facilitated by vendors, Flores is seeking to go further in connecting individuals looking to learn with those in the know when it comes to the billion dollar industry.

“She’s taken on the effort to try to develop basically a tracker of who is interested in serving as a mentor, and who’s interested in receiving the benefits of mentorship, and making those connections,” Collins said.

On the theme of connections, the commission is also exploring the procurement of “app development/web design services for a platform that would facilitate job opportunity distribution” in the state’s cannabis industry, according to a commission source.

During the meeting, Collins said the “connector app” would have a “LinkedIn kind of vibe” to it, with services specific to the industry. According to the official procurement listing on COMMBUYS.com, the platform would be designed to “facilitate the distribution of job opportunities in the cannabis industry across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to increase the hiring of individuals disproportionately impacted by the “War on Drugs” and marijuana prohibition.”

The tool would also come in handy when it comes to applicants who put forward positive impact plans that involve hiring a specific number of employees directly affected by drug laws, according to Collins.

Ultimately, the service would be another helpful tool for participants in the social equity program. If and when it is completed, it would join a list of other benefits individuals earn from completing the program, such as access to social consumption and delivery-only licenses as well as a waiver for application fees for licenses.

Licensing update

As noted on the CCC website, though, taking part in the program does not guarantee licensure.

As of April 16, 856 applications have been approved to various stages in the licensing process by the commission, with 91 of the applications involving those who took part in the program, or a little over 10%.

That number, according to a data table presented by Collins, turns into 251, or 29%, when combined with applications sporting other equity-related statuses, such as applicants that qualify as a “disadvantaged business enterprise” (119), which are businesses that are minority-owned, women-owned or owned by veterans, and “economic empowerment” applicants (41).

Separate from the mandate the social equity program works to meet, the economic empowerment priority process meets another requirement that calls on the CCC to “prioritize review and licensing decisions” for applicants who “demonstrate experience in – or business practices that promote – economic empowerment in disproportionately impacted communities.”

Of the overall 223 applications that have been approved to commence operations, 25 have equity-related status, including four from SEP participants. The number is up from 22 as of March 11, when the data table was first unveiled, and the total number of equity-related applications approved was 240.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo, who was named to fill the panel’s social justice seat in December, was somewhat disappointed with the initial March data, but anticipated improvement with the rollout of the dashboard.

“I think it’s good to see (the data) … it’s a little sad to see in terms of the low numbers on EEs and Social Equity, and I know that there’s bigger issues to opening the doors, but this is good,” Camargo said. “I think having this dashboard will help us, but also folks on the outside to realize what it takes to get these applicants to open.”

Chairman Steven J. Hoffman acknowledged progress – and the need for more.

“We have a lot of work to do here, there’s no question about it,” Hoffman said. “I’m actually pleased because this represents some significant progress… but (I am) totally cognizant of how much more work we have to do here.”

James Paleologopoulos writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.




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