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Massachusetts Is Helping Legal Cannabis Businesses Get Started in Areas Hit Hardest by War on Drugs

The wildly disproportionate drug arrest rates in communities of color have made it harder for minorities to benefit from legal marijuana.

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In Massachusetts, public officials want to share a piece of the cannabis economic pie with those in communities that have faced a disproportionate impact from the War on Drugs.

Joe Amon | Getty Images

The groundbreaking program is led by the state Cannabis Control Commission (CCC). The goal is to offer support in obtaining a license for potential cannabis business owners in areas previously heavily targeted by drug law enforcement.

Many of those people live in the state's predominately black and Latino neighborhoods, according to the CCC. Residents of those communities were arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than others, according to the CCC. The result has been "long-term ill effects" on families and neighborhoods. "We now have the opportunity to redress the historic harm done to those specific individuals and communities," the CCC states.

The program also extends to those who have had a past drug conviction as well as the spouse or child of someone with a drug conviction.

Related: California Has a Serious Compliance Problem

What they mean by social equity.

Social equity has a different meaning than social equality. To enhance equity, the focus is on systematic barriers and inherently unfair processes. The goal is to create better life outcomes for more people by giving those who haven't had a slice of the economic pie a better chance to get one.

To look at it another way, if you want more equality among people of all genders, races and sexual orientations, you must dig deep into the details of institutional processes and make sure they are applied fairly to everyone. In this case, the process is obtaining a license to open a business in the cannabis industry. The goal of the CCC is to reduce obstacles for those who face systematic barriers, including offering those from "disproportionate impact" areas technical and professional assistant in obtaining a license.

To qualify, people must have lived in one of those areas at least five of the last 10 years, make an income that is less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, had a past drug conviction in Massachusetts or be the spouse or child of someone with a conviction.

Related: With Higher Prices and Less Product, California Dispensaries Face Angry Customers

The challenges

Any entrepreneur can already see the issues with such a program, even if the goals are noble. You must have money to make money.

Those applying for a license to grow, distribute or sell marijuana already are hitting barriers. Much of it involves the fact that at every level of government, substantial money is needed to pay fees.

Kijana Rose is a "ganja yoga" instructor who leads clients through yoga workouts that also include vaping cannabis. She became one of the first to receive help through the social equity program. She wants to get a micro-business license to legally grow and sell small amounts of marijuana to her clients.

But she told WBUR that she's already running into problems. The fees to get the license are exorbitant and the regulatory process complex. It includes fees to local governments as well as the state. It also includes finding and buying often expensive real estate as well as navigating local government's zoning process.

Rose said: "It just feels like the process was kind of set up to make it easier for the well-resourced individuals to get right on through."

That's exactly the sort of "the rich get richer" outcome the program is trying to address. But Rose said all she has received from the state so far is an email saying she qualifies for the social equity program. For its part, the state says the program is just getting off the ground and more resources will be available soon.

The state's recreational marijuana program has been slow to get off the ground. While adult-use marijuana is already technically legal, no licensed dispensaries are open yet. About a half dozen are moving through the regulatory process and could open for business this fall.

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