The Boston City Council voted Wednesday to pass a bill that would change who can operate marijuana businesses in the city, specifically aiming to benefit more historically disadvantaged sellers entering the field.
The legislation created a body, called the Boston Cannabis Board, that would license eligible candidates independent of the Mayor’s Office, which previously held the jurisdiction.
City Councilor Kim Janey, who authored the bill and has pushed for nine months to pass it, said in an interview that the board will be assembled when Mayor Martin J. Walsh issues the executive order in the upcoming weeks.
“For me, it’s really important that we have a board that understands the industry and the importance of equity and ensuring that this process is not only equitable,” Janey said, “but that we are putting in place a process that offers entrepreneurs as well as residents much more clarity and much more transparency and ultimately accountability.”
The result, Janey said, would be that previously disadvantaged sellers will comprise half or more of all pot vendors in the Boston market.
“We’ll have a one-to-one ratio when we roll this out,” Janey said. “For each non-equity applicant, we will make sure that there is an equity applicant moving forward.”
To qualify for preference in licensing, a potential seller must meet at least three of the six criteria laid out by the Boston Cannabis Board. Several are purely demographic and some look at situations that may signal an individual has been disproportionately affected by old marijuana laws.
Requirements include having resided in Boston for the past seven years, being of ethnic minority descent and having an income level below the local median, according to the legislative docket.
Applicants who reside in an “area of disproportionate impact” as deemed by the Cannabis Control Commission, have been arrested on marijuana-related charges or are certified Economic Empowerment Applicants are also more likely to qualify.
Massachusetts currently implements Economic Empowerment and Social Equity programs that already offer historically disadvantaged groups an upper hand in establishing marijuana businesses.
Opponents of Janey’s bill have expressed apprehension over increased competition with sellers who do not have special status under EE and SE, but would qualify as an equity applicant under the new program.
Janey said EE Applicants will still retain priority under the new ordinance, as the criteria outlined in her bill are “very much aligned” with what the state already requires.
“It is important that we not pit disadvantaged communities against each other,” Janey said, “but instead create a process that prioritizes all local, diverse companies from communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. And that is what this ordinance does.”
Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, wrote in an email before the vote that his organization believes the bill diminishes the point of EE and SE programs.
“While EE’s application window is closed, SE’s window is still wide open. If someone fit into the impacted definitions, they can still get SE,” Bernard wrote. “We see Boston’s attempt at amending this as a move that would negate the purpose of the SE and EE programs.”
As part of the overhaul, a new Boston Equity Fund will support those who obtain operating licenses as equity applicants. Money for the fund will come from the 3 percent municipal tax on pot revenue levied through Host Community Agreements, which sellers must execute with a city in order to operate.
“We’re going to start off initially with all of the HCA money going into the fund until we reach $1 million,” Janey said. “Once we reach $1 million, instead of having a full 3 percent go in, we’re going to have 0.5 percent.”
The legislation also creates a public online registry that will disclose applicants — both licensed and pending — to retain transparency, according to the docket.
Chris Difonzo, 25, of Somerville, said he thinks it’s important the city is careful in their implementation of the ordinance.
“It’s good to prioritize people who might not have the same advantages,” Difonzo said. “Especially if they’ve suffered damages associated with [illegal weed] in the past and now it’s allowed.”
Newton resident Young Oh, 31, said he believes no group should receive special privileges.
“I feel bad for minority people who get arrested by having marijuana before it was legal,” Oh said, “but you cannot make exceptions for certain people.”
Neil Locketz, 25, of Cambridge, said that while he wouldn’t support prioritizing disadvantaged groups for business operation normally, weed is a special case.
“This used to be something that wasn’t allowed and people went to prison,” Locketz said. “But for businesses in general I think one, that would be extraordinarily hard to manage; with this at least you have permits. But also, I think part of the way that business works in America is that it’s more free.”