Is Massachusetts Living Up to Its Cannabis Equity Promises?

In Boston, 52% of approved recreational dispensary licenses went to equity applicants. In Cambridge, it was 100%. Statewide, it's 35% when all types of licenses are brought into the equation.

Recreational cannabis shops in Boston and Cambridge have been few and far between, partly because officials took time to build an equitable application process before opening shops. Six years in, how are those promises for equity coming along?

Belatedly, recreational cannabis dispensaries are getting licensed in population hubs like Boston and Cambridge – some stores are even opening – but the journey to this moment took more than five years. Most of that time was spent implementing an equitable application process to meet the state’s promise that communities disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of cannabis would have the first opportunity to benefit economically from its legalization.

In Boston, 52% of approved recreational dispensary licenses went to equity applicants. In Cambridge, it was 100%. Statewide, it's 35% when all types of licenses are brought into the equation.

Of the 58 recreational cannabis retail licenses in Boston, 30, or 52%, have gone to equity applicants of one kind or another. Depending on how the term is defined locally, an equity applicant can mean a person of color, a woman, a veteran, a person with a disability or a member of the LGBTQ community.

In Cambridge, all 12 licenses issued so far are in the hands of equity candidates. At least two of the dispensaries have opened.

See a map of Boston and Cambridge licensed dispensary locations below. Please note that while these businesses have been approved, not all of them are open.

Leah Samura and her two partners opened Yamba Market in Central Square about a year ago.  All three Black entrepreneurs benefited from Cambridge’s efforts to elevate applicants of color. They plan to soon open a second location called Yamba Boutique in Harvard Square. Their success is not devoid of struggle.

"One thing I find happening to myself often is that I’m being attacked by men during the process," Samura said. “It’s probably one of the hardest things to deal with – especially when it's Black men attacking a Black woman trying to be in the industry just like they are.”

Leah Samura, owner of Yamba Market, speaks with Glenn Jones about her experiences running her business and the challenges she sometimes faces as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated space.

Women make up just 6% of dispensary ownership in Massachusetts.

Entrepreneurs of color who enter the cannabis space, regardless of their gender, often speak of a struggle for start-up capital. In Boston, former city councilor and now owner of a downtown cannabis business called Apex Noire, Tito Jackson, estimates it costs between $1.2 million to $1.5 million to open an adult-use dispensary in Boston.  It’s created a scenario whereby the people afforded this unique economic opportunity can’t afford the price to seize the opportunity.

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Former Massachusetts Cannabis Control Board Commissioner Steve Hoffman who helped shape equity goals for the industry around the state, continues his advocacy for the economic empowerment of entrepreneurs of color. He says an essential piece of the strategy for equity in ownership is funding and that piece will be in place soon.

“We worked very hard for four years with the Legislature to get them to approve legislation – which was passed in July of last year – that created funding for equity applicants,” Hoffman said.  “And that's something that I wish I had figured out a way to get done more quickly.”

Once that legislation is operationalized, 15 cents of every dollar in recreational cannabis tax revenue will go to an equity fund. Annually, the recreational tax windfall is more than $200 million in Massachusetts. Start-up cannabis industry applicants will be able to access that fund for their initial capital injection to get their business off the ground.  Whether the funds are distributed as a grant or a loan or in some other form is yet to be determined.

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