Minority marijuana businesses seek state-backed capital

Start-up money cited as top barrier to opening

ALL THE STATE’S social equity programs are worth nothing if entrepreneurs of color cannot access the money they need to start a business. 

That was the message from marijuana entrepreneurs – and one state regulator – who testified at a hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy on Tuesday. 

“You need dollars to open, and a state mandate to have restorative social justice and empower people who were harmed by the failed drug war means nothing if there aren’t dollars,” said cannabis attorney and entrepreneur Blake Mensing. 

The hearing centered primarily on several bills that would create some form of state-sponsored fund to help marijuana businesses owned by those disproportionately affected by the war on drugs – primarily racial minorities – access capital. But while there was general agreement that a fund would be beneficial, many details remain to be worked out, including how a fund would operate and where the money would come from. 

The handful of bills vary in their details, but all would provide some form of help  to minority entrepreneurs, including technical assistance and training, low and no-interest loans, or grants. The assistance would be funded through a range of possible mechanisms – state funds, the money marijuana businesses pay in state taxes or local fees, or voluntary donations by marijuana companies or others.  Not all the bills include a funding source. 

Today, state statistics show the cannabis industry is overwhelmingly white and male-owned. 

The Cannabis Control Commission grants some level of priority status in licensing to economic empowerment and social equity applicants – people disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. 

Commissioner Nurys Camargo said 500 applicants have received benefits or training under these programs, but only 10 social equity businesses have actually received permission to open so far, and only 19 businesses owned by women, veterans, or minorities have gotten permission to open. 

“The numbers are not where they need to be,” Camargo said. “Too many individuals still face extensive barriers to taking part in the industry, and they deserve access to it.” 

Camargo said the biggest barrier is access to start-up capital. Massachusetts has strict security and environmental regulations, and Camargo said complying with those are not cheap. Since marijuana is still prohibited on a federal level, applicants often cannot get bank loans. 

“They need access to a state-administered fund that can offer capital to get businesses off the ground,” Camargo said, adding that state government has historically offered assistance to small and medium size businesses in other industries. 

Rep. David Rogers, a Cambridge Democrat and former chair of the cannabis policy committee who sponsored one of the bills establishing a social equity trust fund, said it costs around $1 million to open a retail marijuana store. 

“Communities of color, women, others who historically haven’t had as much access to capital really need help,” Rogers said. “That’s been a barrier to entry.”  

Because it is so difficult for entrepreneurs to access capital, lenders – including companies seeking to get into the marijuana industry themselves without priority status – have been trying to loan social equity businesses money with predatory terms.  

Lorna McCafferty, an activist with the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said she is aware of a company that offered to pay the borrower a six-figure salary, but all the company’s profits would go to the lender – essentially turning the social equity business owner into an employee. Scholange Smith, a participant in the commission’s social equity program, commented, “Although they say we should not work with all these predatory lenders, that’s all we have to work with.” 

Several people who testified worried that passing a bill with no funding source or with an uncertain funding source – like private donations – would be ineffective. “Anybody who works with bills knows to bring forth a bill that provides funding with no revenue source is irresponsible and a waste of this committee’s time,” said Averyl Andrade, a farmer seeking to grow marijuana.  

But some also worried that the funding sources identified in the bills may not be sufficient. For example, one bill proposed using community impact fees paid by marijuana companies to capitalize a fund – but that money is supposed to go only to reimbursing municipalities for costs generated by the marijuana companies. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council, appeared at the virtual hearing with a Zoom background of a circus. He said unless lawmakers create a fund to give entrepreneurs a financial leg up, “we can go in this tent behind us and watch the greatest dog and pony show ever made.” He explained that the Cannabis Control Commission can develop ways to make sure investors do not have managerial control over a company – but lenders will still find ways to write loans that hobble the social equity owner’s ability to do business without essentially becoming an employee of the investor.  

Even if a social equity entrepreneur obtains priority status, Bernard said, “What does that really help me with? If I don’t have the means and don’t have the technical support to get there, it doesn’t mean a lot.”