Pot and the minority community

Pot and the minority community

Is legal marijuana a blight or boon?

Photographs by Michael Manning

THE PRESIDENT OF THE LAWRENCE CITY COUNCIL had already issued a stern warning against booing. City resident Steven Gil was at the podium, struggling mightily to make the case at the hearing in early October that allowing marijuana businesses in the city would be a good thing. “Please don’t shut the door on something that can create jobs,” he implored. Loud boos rang out, and the chairman pounded his gavel.

Gil was a minority of one that night in speaking against a ban on marijuana establishments in Lawrence. The gallery was filled to capacity with ban supporters, and with several pastors among the speakers, the mood at times felt like a religious revival. “I’m sure once again you will vote in favor of our values,” Rev. Victor Jarvis of the Ebenezer Christian Church told the council. “And I’m sure again you will say no to marijuana in Lawrence.” He paused before repeating the line, his voice rising with each syllable: “No to marijuana in Lawrence.” Cheers erupted.

The council went on to vote unanimously for a complete ban on marijuana-related businesses in the city.

Lawrence’s opposition to marijuana is rooted in the sense that that pot shops will only add another unsavory influence to a city already awash in them. The city is one of the poorest cities in the state, and crime and overdose statistics have been especially grim this year.

While Lawrence has been especially strident in its anti-marijuana stance—it was one of the few communities in the state to vote against legalizing medical marijuana in 2012, and it voted against the 2016 recreational marijuana referendum, Question 4, by one of the largest margins in the state—misgivings are evident in other Gateway Cities and minority communities. Methuen also voted to ban recreational marijuana facilities; Springfield passed a temporary moratorium.

These developments would seem to run counter to one of the core principles of the marijuana legalization movement in Massachusetts. From its inception, the campaign was predicated on ending the prohibition on a drug that has led to a vastly disproportionate number of people of color being arrested, jailed, and saddled with criminal records. And activists and sympathetic lawmakers have gone to great lengths to try to ensure that communities of color benefit from the industry. Equity is codified in the law, with provisions designed to help minorities (as well as women and veterans) get a leg up in the industry, and it explicitly allows those with marijuana-related convictions to participate, as employees or owners.

And yet, what happened in Lawrence, a city with a population that is around 70 percent Latino, suggests that these assurances either aren’t being heard or they’re falling on deaf ears. The sense among many is that marijuana will be another exploitive industry, causing harm to the vulnerable and young while siphoning money from residents’ pockets to faraway owners. Judging by the experience of states farther along the legalization path, not all of these concerns can be easily dismissed as “reefer madness.”

DRUG-FREE PLEA

Not long ago, Andy Delacruz had to bring his young daughters home from the park in Lawrence where they normally play and keep them cooped up at home. “They were crying. It’s so hard to be a kid 24 hours a day in the home,” he says. The reason: the park stunk of marijuana smoke. There’s already too much weed in the city, Delacruz says—and if pot shops are allowed, it’d be even worse.

“I believe that one of the biggest problem is all these kids are going to be smoking and we’re not going to be able make them stop doing it,” he says. “We need to make good changes to our community. One of the most important things a community should be able to do is create opportunities for those people with nothing to do.”

It may not be surprising that legalizing the sale of marijuana is a tough sell in a city that is known as a hub for the regional heroin and opioid trade, one that already struggles with more than its share of poverty, addiction, and crime. As was evident at the city council meeting in October, churches, which are well-attended in Lawrence, have certainly helped amplify the anti-marijuana message.

In this sense, Lawrence has been especially receptive to the anti-pot position staked out by church leaders in the state. Ahead of the 2016 state election, the Boston Archdiocese assembled a group of some 40 religious leaders to speak out against Question 4. The group included representatives of the Black Ministerial Alliance and Episcopal, Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, and Hispanic Evangelical communities. (Calls to Jarvis, the pastor who spoke at the October council meeting, and other church leaders in Lawrence were not returned.)

Some observers have suggested that, in the case of Law-rence’s large immigrant community, residents may retain the strong anti-marijuana views of their homelands. While attitudes are shifting in parts of Latin America in favor of legalization, in the Dominican Republic, where much of Lawrence’s Latino population hails from, marijuana laws are especially harsh. A first time charge of simple possession carries a minimum sentence of six months in prison.

A CALL FOR EQUITY

Kamani Jefferson keeps a running spreadsheet of communities that are considering restricting marijuana businesses, and he often shows up at town meetings to make the case against doing so. Jefferson heads a small group, the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, which has pushed for a social justice and locally-oriented marijuana law, and, more recently, fought at the municipal level against bans and other restrictions on the cannabis business. With the opposing side aided by religious leaders and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Jefferson’s group hasn’t always been successful.

Pro-marijuana advocate Kamani Jefferson.

Lawrence was especially tough. “It was political warfare,” says Jefferson, who is black. Arguments about the jobs and revenues that could be generated from the marijuana industry seemed to carry little weight. “They kept saying it’s drug money, no matter how much it is. And the religious folks, they were very against it and a lot of minority groups, especially older ones,” he says.

Still, it was hard not to notice that only one person—Steven Gil—spoke out against the marijuana ban at the Lawrence City Council meeting in October.

Jefferson has reached out to a pro-legalization religious group, Clergy for a New Drug Policy, in hopes of countering the church-based opposition he’s encountered in Lawrence and elsewhere. And Jefferson concedes that Lawrence is not the only heavily minority community where there are elevated concerns about retail marijuana.

“In Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, Question 4 didn’t do very well in those neighborhoods,” he says. Prospective marijuana dispensaries will need “community support, and I think it could be rough. A minority business owner could have opposition from the very people he wants to help.”

This is no small irony considering that one of the defining features of Massachusetts’ incipient marijuana program is its emphasis on minority participation and empowerment. The Cannabis Control Commission is required to prioritize the awarding of licenses to those with previous medical marijuana experience or those that “demonstrate experience in or business practices that promote economic empowerment in communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration” for marijuana-related offenses. Under the law, a conviction for a marijuana-related offense—unless it’s for selling to a minor—cannot disqualify a person from obtaining a license or working in the industry.

In December, the commission approved draft regulations that, among other things, set no minimum capital requirement for obtaining a recreational license and set the application fee for a retail license at only $300, which would be waived for “equity applicants.” The annual license fee would be $5,000. (By contrast, in Colorado the initial fee for a new store is $4,500, and the renewal fee is $1,800.)

“No state in the country has gotten equity right, and I want Massachusetts to be the blueprint,” says Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has taken the lead in pushing for a social justice-oriented marijuana law. “This is an opportunity to right the injustice in the past and right the disproportionate impact the war on drugs has had on low-income communities and people of color.”

Pressley has zeroed in on a disturbing pattern to emerge in the existing marijuana industry: It’s dominated by white people. A 2016 report by BuzzFeed estimated that no more than 1 percent of licensed dispensaries in states with legal recreational and medical marijuana were owned by black people.

Pressley says minority participation in the marijuana industry—not potentially negative community impacts—is the main concern she’s heard from constituents. “I don’t want to be dismissive of that reality, that we have be stringent and responsible on regulation, but my focus has been equity and making sure we hold ourselves accountable,” she says. “No neighborhood is served by density and concentration of any one industry; how we get at that is through zoning.”

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.

Still, Pressley concedes that some people she’s heard from are doubtful that minority communities will see much benefit from the marijuana industry. “I’d say they’re encouraged by the prospect but skeptical it will happen,” she says. “Again, that’s because the industry has such a spotty track record when it comes to equity. The industry has been dominated by the same profile of entrepreneur.”

POT ZONING 

The marijuana industry, as it has developed in the pioneer states of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, benefits from a certain buzzy aura. Many pot shops play up the wellness theme—there’s LivWell and Levity Wellness in Colorado—and are clean, minimalist affairs with boutique vibes.

But there is concern this upscale veneer may conceal some disturbing trends. As outlets have proliferated in Colorado, where legal sales began in 2014, they’ve tended to concentrate in areas that are more racially and ethnically diverse, according to a 2016 study published by the Journal of Addiction. The study also found that census tracts with pot shops tend to have lower household income and higher unemployment and crime rates.

A 2016 analysis by the Denver Post found a similar pattern in the city, which it attributed to the fact that industrial areas with pot-friendly zoning tend to be located in or near low-income areas and that such neighborhoods typically offer cheaper rent.

In California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, a 2015 study found that dispensaries in the Los Angeles area were more often located in areas that were poorer, and had larger Latino populations and concentrations of liquor stores, a phenomenon researchers linked to zoning restrictions.

It’s possible to discern a similar pattern already emerging in Massachusetts, a state not generally known for its laissez-faire attitude toward businesses that might be regarded as unsavory. More than 100 communities have voted for restrictions on marijuana businesses, from moratoriums to outright bans, making themselves off-limits to retail marijuana well before the state is expected to issue the first recreational sale license this summer. In Milford, a narrow majority of voters supported Question 4, only to vote in September by a considerably larger margin to ban marijuana businesses from town. This phenomenon has raised the hackles of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization. He lamented in an interview with the Boston Herald in May that the suburban bans could lead to an influx of pot-seekers to the city and “a pot shop on every corner.”

For public health experts, the possibility that pot shops might end up concentrated in lower income areas is worrying because it may increase the likelihood that the drug will end up in the hands of vulnerable populations, including juveniles. Research has shown a connection between the use of tobacco and alcohol—and the associated health ills—and proximity to purveyors of these products.

“Right now marijuana benefits from a certain positive vibe, and I share that to some extent,” says Vaughan Rees, the director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Global Tobacco Control. “But I’m concerned over time we’ll see the presence of some predatory features among marijuana retailers like we’ve seen with tobacco, where we see a preponderance of ads, low-price ads, or ads targeted to kids.”

While the early generation of pot shops may cater to connoisseurs, with prized strains priced accordingly, a downmarket version could emerge down the line. And, as Rees points out, those at the lower end of the income spectrum, as well as young people, tend to be more “price sensitive.”

As marijuana advocates will point out, pot has not been linked to adverse health effects the way tobacco and alcohol have, nor is it considered physically addictive. However, there is emerging scientific consensus that marijuana can be harmful to adolescents.

“Even though people perceive marijuana as not that bad for you, the adolescent brain around puberty undergoes large restructuring as it transitions to adulthood,” says Margie Skeer, an associate professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “If teens are spending their time using marijuana and alcohol over and over again, those pathways are going to get solidified in their brains.”

And then there is the profusion of cannabis-infused products, from edibles such as gummy worms, granola bars, and caramels to lotion and lip balm. Skeer recalled a recent visit to a marijuana dispensary in Denver that was like “a concession stand at a movie theater.”

“Research shows teens like using [edibles] because they can be used covertly, and they don’t smell like pot,” she says. “It’s also dangerous because people don’t understand the dosing.”

Tufts University health professor Margie Skeer.

Of course, Massachusetts law bars anyone under 21 from buying pot or pot products. The concern is that the products will find their way onto the street, that they will be “diverted,” in the industry parlance. And states with legal recreational marijuana have seen a decline—sometimes dramatic—in pot prices on the black market, which, if precedent is any guide, will survive in Massachusetts in some form.

Still, research offers a mixed picture on whether legalization leads more teens to take up marijuana. A study in JAMA Pediatrics in 2016 found pot use among teens in Colorado mostly unchanged in the years since full legalization. And federal survey data found that pot use among teens nationwide in 2016 had dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. However, another study found that teens in Colorado were admitted to emergency rooms high on pot at more than twice the rate in 2015 that they were in 2009.

GREEN OPENING?

For all the anxieties that have surfaced in Lawrence around marijuana, some minority communities have come to recognize the promise of the industry; but it’s taken a measure of persuasion. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has made a name for himself by welcoming the marijuana industry as a way to bring jobs and development to the struggling city. Last year, a national medical marijuana company, GTI, drew up plans for a grow facility and dispensary in the central city, where a large share of the population is lower-income and Latino. At a community meeting, GTI’s chief executive, who is white, was grilled by residents over the site’s proximity to a school, and they expressed doubts that the business would put much money in their pockets.

The CEO, Peter Kadens, responded: “It is a fact that the war on drugs and the war on marijuana has disproportionately affected communities of color. People like yourselves deserve the right to profit from this. You deserve the right to be employed by this industry—that’s why we came to Holyoke.”

In the case of Holyoke, this argument appeared to hold sway. The facility was ultimately approved unanimously by the city council, thanks in no small measure from commitments by GTI to hire locally and fund community organizations.

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The notion that legal marijuana could be an economic engine rather than a blight is also gaining currency in other Gateway Cities. Chelsea City Councilor Yamir Rodriguez says most of the constituents he’s heard from were cautiously optimistic about a legal marijuana industry. “People are curious where it could lead to, but there’s hope that it can stop the selling in the street and the violence,” he says.

Beneath the anti-marijuana din, such sentiments can be heard in Lawrence as well. “More than just bringing pot shops, I was really supporting being able to cultivate in Lawrence,” says city resident Franallen Acosta, a lanky 24-year-old with a thatch of dreadlocks, who waged an unsuccessful bid for city council last year. “We have space. They could be good high-paying jobs. All of these things we’ll be missing out on, but it will keep happening in the underworld.”