Marty Walsh says a Somerville-style marijuana equity initiative is ‘worth exploring’ for Boston

The Boston mayor said the "one-to-one" system could be worth the possible delays.

Mayor Marty Walsh
Marty Walsh during a conference in Boston this past June. –Scott Eisen / Getty Images

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says that equity in the local marijuana industry is a “value worth working for,” even if it results in some delays in getting retail stores up and running.

In an opinion piece Monday for The Boston Globe, Walsh said he thinks a one-to-one equity program is worth considering as Boston moves forward in the process of approving recreational marijuana businesses.

Similar to the unprecedented ordinance passed in Somerville last month, Walsh said Boston could require that every other company approved by the city must be a state-certified “Economic Empowerment” applicant, meaning that they are either majority-owned by or mostly employ people from communities disproportionately affected by previous drug law enforcement. The priority status is designed to ensure that groups marginalized by the so-called War on Drugs, such as people of color, have equitable access to the new industry in Massachusetts.

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Walsh says it’s a goal worth the delays that very well could come as a result.

“This ‘one-to-one’ system of parity would result in a slower sequence of approvals,” he wrote Monday. “But we believe it is worth exploring every avenue, because equity is a value worth working for. We are a city that pioneers social change and we are also a city that does things the right way.”

Walsh’s piece comes after a Boston City Council hearing last week on the challenges facing people of color who hope to get into the state’s still-fledgling but lucrative recreational marijuana industry.

“We need to make sure that communities that have been locked up are not locked out of this economic opportunity,” Councilor Kim Janey said during the hearing.

However, as the mayor wrote Monday, the high startup costs and the inability of local government and banks to offer assistance due to the federal prohibition of marijuana has resulted in “very few viable applications from local entrepreneurs of color” in Boston. Walsh’s administration said last week that the city has received more than 50 applications. Out of the 27 companies that had reached the second stage of the four-step application process, just one had “Economic Empowerment” status.

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“The only folks who really have the resources to bring to bear, to walk through that process pretty simply, in fact, are the big money players nationally that are applying to the city,” John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, said during last week’s City Council hearing.

Ascend — a venture capital-backed company led by former Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral — will likely be Boston’s first recreational dispensary, opening near North Station “sometime next year,” Walsh wrote Monday. The fact that Cabral is a woman of color reportedly figured into the city’s selection of Ascend over two competing companies in the same neighborhood, officials said last week.

Walsh said last month that the city had signed a total of four host community agreements with prospective marijuana businesses. However, his administration has faced criticism for the lack of forward progress. Barros also said last week that ensuring equity in the industry — potentially with a Somerville-style one-to-one approval process — was worth the potential delays that could result in approving dispensaries in Boston, where more than 62 percent of residents voted to legalize marijuana in 2016.

“A one-for-one would slow us down, and I’m for that because equity, I think, should be our primary objective,” he said.

Currently, just two Massachusetts dispensaries are open for non-medical customers — both more than an hour-drive from Boston. There are, however, more shops, including one in Salem, that are poised to open in the coming weeks.

Walsh opposed the 2016 ballot measure to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts, but made it clear Monday that his personal concerns about the health implications of legalization for young people “play no role whatsoever in how the city is handling the licensing of marijuana businesses.”

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“I am committed to implementing the law in a manner that is timely, equitable, and respectful of the voters and the community,” he wrote.