Boston inches forward with recreational marijuana permits

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Every two weeks, at meetings of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, marijuana officials display a map showing how many completed applications for recreational pot business licenses have been submitted from each county in the state.

Conspicuously lagging behind: Suffolk County, home to Boston — which, unlike most cities in the state that haven’t banned such companies, has yet to issue a local permit to a recreational marijuana operator.

Now, those numbers are poised to grow. Officials in the administration of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh told the Globe last week that the city will negotiate its first so-called “host community agreements” with marijuana companies in the first two weeks of October.

Those contracts are required in order to win a state license from the commission, so Walsh’s signature on one would allow that company to move forward at the state level. The deals typically call for payments from the company to the municipality and spell out other conditions, such as the facility’s hours of operation.

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City Hall officials declined to put a timeline on when pot shops might open in Boston, however, saying it depends on when the state issues final licenses to applicants from the city. They also declined to make Walsh or other city leaders available for an on-the-record interview.

The officials also gave new details on how they would apply the city’s zoning rules, which require a half-mile buffer between licensed marijuana facilities. In several neighborhoods, two applicants are vying for permission to open in the same area, raising the question of how the city would choose between them.

The officials said those decisions will be made by the office of Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s director of emerging industries, in collaboration with the city’s transportation, planning, and legal departments.

Officials will consider a number of variables: which company applied first, the reaction of neighbors to each proposal, traffic impacts, how the proposal fits within the city’s development and planning schemes, and whether the company is eligible for state programs boosting entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Those variables, however, will not be weighted, and applicants won’t be assigned a score. Instead, officials will simply judge the “totality” of each application.

That behind-closed-doors process is unlikely to placate advocates and some city councilors, who have called on the city to enact more robust mandates favoring companies owned by minorities and local residents over wealthy out-of-state investors.

Shanel Lindsay, an attorney, businesswoman, and the cofounder of Equitable Opportunities Now, a group pushing for equity in the cannabis industry, slammed the city’s “opaque” process. She said the failure to create an objective standard and make decisions in public opens the door to bias and favoritism, and is likely to favor already-wealthy white operators who can afford to hire sophisticated lawyers and former city officials to grease the wheels.

“This is exactly what we were worried about,” Lindsay said. “It’s really vague and subjective. There’s no clear standard, no community collaboration, no transparency, and no clear acknowledgment of the necessity to make equity a prevailing favor in their decisions.”

City officials noted that every applicant must hold a public hearing and address neighborhood concerns. They also said they would consider waiving the half-mile buffer for applicants that qualify for the state commission’s equity programs, explaining that such entrepreneurs might apply later, after prime properties are taken and buffer zones have been drawn around facilities whose owners moved faster. The process for seeking such an accommodation is unclear, though.

Officials further stressed that Boston, unlike other municipalities, hasn’t categorically zoned marijuana businesses out of residential areas or off of main streets. They also pledged not to impose onerous conditions on or demand large payments from marijuana operators, saying the city’s host community agreements would mostly be focused on addressing concerns raised by neighbors — for example, agreeing not to install benches and picnic tables where people might hang out and smoke weed.

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