In the Weeds



In 2018, Massachusetts created a program to support cannabis entrepreneurs whose businesses will benefit communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Bitter disputes over the policy's implementation in Cambridge have since raised questions about what, exactly, equity and reparations should look like.



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Leah Y. Samura is now one step closer to opening a sex-positive, women-focused cannabis boutique at 33 Church St. — a 1,300 square ft. space in Harvard Square that was once a police headquarters. Last month, she reached the final checkpoint in the convoluted bureaucratic process behind opening a recreational cannabis store in Massachusetts. She envisions her small shop, Yamba Boutique, as a warm, welcoming space that offers local products specifically geared toward women.

Samura has already begun to contribute to this niche within the growing cannabis cannabis industry: Alongside her husband, fellow entrepreneur Sieh E. Samura, she developed and distributes a THC-infused bedroom lubricant with the aim of foregrouding women’s needs during sex. Her goal of sourcing products created by women might be a lofty one, she admits, since the market for cannabis cultivation and distribution is dominated by white men, but Samura has high hopes for her majority women-owned, 100 percent Black-owned business.

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Opening Yamba Boutique will already be a kind of poetic justice. “It’s like bringing it full circle, right?” Leah Samura says, “Selling weed out of a police station that used to lock us up and keep us in there forever.”

“In the shadow of one of the most elite white institutions,” her husband adds.

A few months ago, Sieh Samura, like Leah, also reached the final hurdle at the local cannabis licensing process: the host community agreement. This agreement requires that the business will pay a percentage of their profits to the city, including a “community impact fee” of up to 3 percent total revenue. He looks forward to opening Yamba Market, a large cannabis shop in Central Square.

Sieh’s Yamba Market and Leah’s Yamba Boutique are independent businesses, but will function like a “his-and-hers.” The word ‘Yamba’ is a colloquial term for cannabis used in parts of West Africa, Sieh Samura which he says is linguistically related to the root word of ‘marijuana.’

With their host community agreements secured, the Samuras’ approval process at the state level should move quickly, in large part due to a Massachusetts program that aims to support entrepreneurs whose cannabis businesses will benefit communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. In 2018, after Massachusetts legalized recreational cannabis, the state-wide Cannabis Control Commission identified 122 groups of entrepreneurs as “Economic Empowerment Applicants'' to receive priority Massachusetts licensure. Among them were the Samuras.

A year later, Cambridge made national headlines for a progressive measure to supplement this state-wide program: a two-year exclusivity period for Economic Empowerment Applicants to complete the arduous local approval process. The existing, predominantly white-owned medical dispensaries wouldn’t be able to expand their facilities to recreational until the two-year window came to a close.

This policy was seen as a win for equity advocates in Cambridge, but the Samuras dispute this. Despite relief about having received their host community agreements, they maintain that this two-year exclusivity period was actually a hindrance — one that cost them and other Economic Empowerment Applicants millions of dollars.

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If all goes well, Leah Samura’s shop will open in the next few months, maybe in time for the influx of newly-vaccinated Harvard students and faculty in the fall. And a few blocks away, across the street from Amorino Gelato and Kirkland House, she might have a new neighbor: Cookies Cambridge.

Cookies is a global, vertically-integrated, $500 million corporation, founded by rapper-turned-mogul Berner, whose famed Girl Scout Cookies “remains one of the most sought after cannabis strains in the world,” according to its website. The growing business already has locations across the country, mostly on the West Coast, and even a dispensary in Tel Aviv. They hold partnerships with Rick Ross and Killer Mike, as well as public cannabis companies Green Thumb Industries and SLANG Worldwide. Two weeks ago, the Cambridge planning board unanimously approved a special permit for a Cookies location at 57 JFK St. They haven’t yet obtained their host community agreement, but like the Samuras, the entrepreneurs behind Cookies Cambridge are one step closer to opening in Harvard Square.

Damond Hughes, whose group, Blue Enterprises, will own a majority stake in this Cookies branch, formerly ran his family’s liquor store in Boston. “I pinched myself a few times,” Hughes says, “but it’s genuine and it’s real.” He attributes much of his success in the cannabis space to business partners Richard N. Harding and Tabasuri Moses, who originally connected him to Cookies.

Hughes met Moses about 15 years ago in the real estate business. Years later, Hughes applied to the Economic Empowerment Program with his group, Moses with his. Ultimately, they decided they’d be “more powerful together as one.” Speaking of Hughes, Harding says, “I don’t wanna call him our little brother, but that’s our brother.”

Harding and Moses are among the most well-connected and experienced businessmen in the Cambridge cannabis space. They were the first minority business owners to get a host community agreement for cannabis cultivation in Massachusetts. The two childhood friends, Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduates, and current business partners jumped into the cannabis industry early, quickly realizing it was unwelcoming to people from marginalized backgrounds. They noticed that the same government officials — such as former speaker of the House John A. Boehner — who perpetrated the War on Drugs were also preventing Black and brown entrepreneurs from gaining a foothold in the industry.

“Even if they got in the door, those who were closest to the pain around the War on Drugs were so far from the profit and prosperity of the emerging cannabis business,” Harding says.

So Harding and Moses did something about it. They set up a dual company, Green Soul Organics, LLC., and non-profit, Green Soul Foundation, that support equity in the cannabis industry through workforce training, job development, and technical assistance. “Anybody who is like-minded and conscious and willing to give back to the community, we’re going to help them at Green Soul,” Harding says. “That’s what we do.”

Their influence doesn’t just reach rising entrepreneurs — Green Soul shapes policy. Before the Cambridge moratorium, there were other proposals on the table — measures that would not have postponed existing medical dispensaries from becoming recreational. Harding, Moses, and their group pushed hard, some would argue too hard, for the two-year exclusivity period, a window now coming to a close.

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As cities across Massachusetts came under fire for potentially undercutting state-wide social equity measures, Cambridge hoped to support Economic Empowerment Applicants within the municipality.

“At the local level, there was really very little guidance from the state other than that we could provide some kind of preference [to the Economic Empowerment Applicants],” City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan says. “So we had to sort that out at home.” At first, the councilors thought this would just mean creating new zoning policies for recreational cannabis — changing the districts such businesses can operate in and the minimum distances from other shops and medical dispensaries.

Zondervan passed a proposal in late 2018 that decreased the default 1,800-foot distance required between cannabis shops. Economic empowerment applicants could now seek locations closer to the registered medical dispensaries already in operation, many of which had secured prime real estate. The city council also removed a cap on the total number of dispensaries.

Even after the zoning measure went through, he heard from Economic Empowerment Applicants that it wasn’t enough. Green Soul, Zondervan, and now-Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui led the push for the two-year moratorium that ultimately passed.

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But this wasn’t the only policy on the table. A different proposal, one backed by the Samuras, Councilor E. Denise Simmons, and the registered medical dispensaries in Cambridge was fiercely debated for months.

The crux of the issue: time versus money. Harding and other advocates of the two-year moratorium argued that an exclusivity period would give Economic Empowerment Applicants time to catch up to the pre-existing registered medical dispensaries, which could not expand to recreational-use until the window closed. Prior to the legalization of recreational marijuana, the (white-owned) registered medical dispensaries were the only cannabis retailers in the city. They already had economic power: Sira Naturals, for instance, is on the Canadian Stock exchange. And they were self-sufficient, growing their own product: All the recreational medical dispensaries had cultivation licenses in addition to their physical locations.

“You allow [the registered medical dispensaries] — they’re already operating — basically just to file new paperwork and then in two weeks they open,” Harding says. “And then you have Economic Empowerment. It takes some people three, four years to open a dispensary. That’s ridiculous.”

If registered medical dispensaries expanded to recreational use, “the little guys” wouldn’t stand a chance, advocates for the moratorium argued. “How could that ever be equity?” Harding says.

The Samuras and Simmons, on the other hand, wanted to negotiate with the registered medical dispensaries — in their plan, businesses like Revolutionary Clinics and Sira Naturals could go recreational if they contributed to a fund to support Economic Empowerment Applicants. Registered medical dispensaries representatives, Economic Empowerment Applicants, and city councilors met for a series of negotiations. The amount hasn’t been publicized, but according to the Samuras, they came to an agreement: $7.5 million overall in “free money.”

“It would have been totally unprecedented support for Economic Empowerment Applicants in Massachusetts or equity businesses anywhere else,” Sieh Samura says.

For both sides, the debate between time and money wasn’t just about efficacy — each side became highly suspicious of the other’s economic interests. The Samuras believed Green Soul was motivated exclusively by their connections to multi-state operators, some of the largest cannabis brands in the country: MedMen, which gave the Green Soul Foundation a $1 million cash advance on a long-term agreement, and Cookies, of which Moses is a partner.

As the Samuras see it, the multi-state operators wanted a leg up in the Cambridge market “under the guise” of equity participants. Sieh says that proponents of the moratorium (he declined to name exactly who) “were effectively misinforming the Cambridge City Council so that they could carve out a place for themselves and the multi-state operators that they were working with, and they successfully co-opted the social equity movement here in Massachusetts, which is really about a lot of lip service and virtue signaling and not really about real action.” (Real Action for Cannabis Equity is a coalition of elected officials, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders, of which Harding and Moses are leaders.)

This is where the moratorium fits in: the longer it takes to open up shop, the more in rent and fees the owner pays in the interim. Richer groups will last longer; those with less will eventually drop out. In the Samuras’ view, the compensation from the registered medical dispensaries would have given Economic Empowerment Applicants the capital to be stronger players in the game. The moratorium was just a means of delay. “As long as they can drag the process out, they know without a doubt that they can stay there longer, withstand [the wait], and that they’ll eventually be able to get more market share,” Sieh Samura says.

But Green Soul maintains that the suggested deals with the registered medical dispensaries were wholly unfavorable to Economic Empowerment Applicants. Zondervan, too, claims that these funds would not function as the “free money” the Samuras described. Rather, he says that they would be in the form of supply loans, “not unrestricted cash that could be used to set up a business.”

“The little bit of money that they were going to put on the table for them, whether it be in loans, or hard cash, in my estimation, was a pittance as it related to the industry and the profits that they were making on their back,” Harding says. Moreover, he says proponents of direct payments would have accepted as little as $250,000 per group, much lower than the estimated $1 million needed to open an independent cannabis shop. “They would’ve taken a nickel and a ham sandwich.” he says.

Harding adds that the only Economic Empowerment Applicants to favor such a deal, including the Samuras, were already “in bed with the devil” — that is, the registered medical dispensaries.

And the Samuras did have existing relationships with the medical dispensaries. Sira Naturals, acquired in 2018 by Cannabis Strategies Acquisition Corp., helped the couple develop and distribute their cannabis lube product through the company’s “business accelerator program.” The Samuras say they see nothing insidious in that business relationship.

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The ensuing series of hearings and surrounding lobbying campaign were cutthroat at best, straining city councilors and dividing Economic Empowerment Applicants. Leah Samura described the process as rife with “yelling and bullying,” and recounts those with opposing views screaming lies about her in the middle of public meetings, which the couple speculates may have delayed their HCA approval.

Simmons, a longtime city council member and the nation’s first Black openly lesbian mayor, published an op-ed in the Cambridge Chronicle recalling how “those with deep pockets sent out mailers all across the city attempting to influence public sentiment, playing on peoples’ passions, fears, and prejudices, and ultimately pitting neighbor against neighbor.” The most egregious mailing read: “The Simmons Amendment = the Slave Amendment,” implying Economic Empowerment Applicants would be “enslaved” to the registered medical dispensaries.

“Those who were behind this unconscionable tactic — some of whom I’ve known, grown up with, worked with, supported, and socialized with for decades — should be absolutely ashamed of themselves,” she wrote in the piece. Simmons did not respond to multiple attempts for an interview. Zondervan declined to comment on the vitriolic tone of the debate.

The way Harding saw it, he needed to go hard against the registered medical dispensaries. “They were multi-national companies where these people would not jump in and help Economic Empowerment groups to get a leg up, and that was the reason why I started this fight,” Harding explains. “They were doing just what white corporate entities do all the time — they were taking advantage of the situation. None of their people were affected by The War on Drugs, but they were going to make all of the profit. I was not going to let that happen.”

He didn’t. In a 7-to-0 vote, the moratorium passed. Simmons abstained. The existing medical dispensaries would have to wait to go recreational. There would be no fund from the registered medical dispensaries to benefit Economic Empowerment Applicants. If all goes as planned, Cookies will open in the near future.

It’s strange to think that a win for Economic Empowerment would mean the opening of a half-billion dollar brand. But Economic Empowerment Applicants can “partner” with larger multi-state operators and registered medical dispensaries. As long as the Economic Empowerment group has at least 51 percent ownership, this is compliant with the state policy — like how Hughes’ group, Blue Enterprises, will have majority ownership of Cookies Cambridge even though Cookies itself is a national chain.

To the Samuras, this policy quirk muddies the water of who should really benefit from Economic Empowerment. “I can make a company where we have 51 percent — no individuals really in control — the company is actually a white organization,” Sieh says. “And I just wrangled some Black people, and put them there at five to 10 percentage points apiece, and now I’m calling it a Black company in Cambridge, and it’s actually Cookies or it’s actually MedMen.” (MedMen is the multi-state operator who granted Green Soul a $1 million advance.)

Sieh Samura believes multi-state operators are cognizant of this loophole and hungry for gains in new markets. And to that end, Hughes recalls having conversations with a variety of other multi-state operators — “most of the key players” — before settling on the deal with Cookies. In conversations with company representatives, he noticed vague language and big promises. But when the group actually pored over the paperwork, they found “it was nothing like” what they were discussing.

That’s why Blue Enterprises took the Cookies deal — it felt genuine. Moreover, the group admired the company’s values. “The fact that they’re a minority-owned company, and to be able to partner with another minority-owned company, I mean, that’s special,” Hughes says. “That happens very rarely in any industry, so for it to be able to happen in this space is incredible.”

Still, even though Blue Enterprises’ partnership with Cookies aligns with the rules of the Economic Empowerment Program, to some, Cookies’ opening doesn’t feel in the spirit of the Cambridge equity policy. But neither does encouraging Economic Empowerment Applicants into potentially low-ball deals with registered medical dispensaries that held monopolies in the pre-recreational Cambridge cannabis space. At the end of the day, all Economic Empowerment Applicants had ties to either multi-million dollar, white-owned registered medical dispensaries or similarly multi-million dollar, PoC-owned registered medical dispensaries.

But what choice did they have? With cannabis as a criminalized substance on the federal level, banks won’t lend and investors won’t invest in the kinds of mom-and-pop stores Economic Empowerment Applicants are assumed to be. Economic empowerment applicants are put in a bind — the financial risks of independent operation risk jeopardizing the possibility of generational wealth. Before any group applied for Economic Empowerment status, they were prospective business owners — profit is, understandably, a key consideration.

Moreover, the highly fraught nature of the campaign points to the broader issue of a lack of state oversight. Crafting a strong cannabis equity policy on a municipal level was dire for Economic Empowerment Applicants because Massachusetts offers so few guidelines.

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The Cannabis Control Commission, a state-level cohort of government appointees and cannabis legal experts, has two programs that aim to rectify the racist policies of the War on Drugs: Economic Empowerment and Social Equity. Economic Empowerment is a lowercase “social equity” program, but the two initiatives are entirely different. The Social Equity program is for cannabis entrepreneurs who have been directly harmed by the War on Drugs, defined by the location of one’s home and whether or not they have a drug conviction. The initiative is an ongoing, free training program — not a license.

Economic Empowerment, however — the program benefiting Hughes and the Samuras alike — is intended for groups whose businesses will promote positive change for areas adversely affected by the War on Drugs. The qualifications for Economic Empowerment were broader than for Social Equity, which centers around the specific identity of an individual.

“I do think it’s important to understand that you can promote Economic Empowerment in disproportionately harmed communities, without necessarily meeting the other demographic requirements, I guess,” former CCC Commissioner Shaleen A. Title says — meaning white-owned businesses can still meet the Economic Empowerment qualifications. Both Cookies and Yamba are not only minority-owned, but have plans to support Black and brown communities in Cambridge and Boston.

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The CCC selected 122 groups in 2018 to receive “priority status” on their path toward state licensure. In other words, after completing the complicated process at the local level, their application will be pushed to the top of the larger pool for state-wide review. If they don’t meet state requirements, their priority status is essentially null, but if they do, the Economic Empowerment designation is supposed to slash months of waiting time and rent payments.

Zondervan doesn’t think this approach really addresses equity. “They created a system to give priority considerations to [Economic Empowerment applicants] at the state licensing level, but it’s not really an equity program in the sense that the [Economic Empowerment applicants] are still on their own in terms of financing,” he wrote in an email.

Still, many progressives lauded these social equity programs as innovative, first-in-the-nation measures at the intersection of equity and cannabis legalization. Harding is grateful for his designation as an Economic Empowerment Applicant, but also finds flaws in the implications of the policy. “When you close the door behind you, it just basically means you’ve got a lottery ticket,” Harding says. He had business connections and acumen, but also luck and good timing. “I just don’t think that’s fair, quite frankly, and I’m one of the people who got a lottery ticket.”

When the commission does approve the final state license — a step in the process that very few Economic Empowerment Applicants have actually reached — they are entitled to three dispensary licenses, three cultivation licenses, and three manufacturing licenses. They have the potential for substantial growth and multiple properties. But Harding muses, “Why wouldn’t you have given more people the opportunity to get one store?”

Because of Economic Empowerment’s one-off nature — you were either selected or you weren’t — the program perpetuates scarcity, as well as competition: Once you’ve been “empowered,” you’re on your own. “I understand that I’m lucky, but I’d rather set up a system where you don’t have to be, right?” Harding says. He views the policy, in part, as a function of American capitalism “as American as apple pie.”

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But it’s hardly smooth sailing for the “lucky few” Economic Empowerment Applicants, particularly when it comes to securing their host community agreements — the pivotal step at the local level (and the one that the Samuras recently received) that solidifies a group to apply for a state license.

Before a prospective business owner is eligible to receive a host community agreement, they must secure their property, as well as complete an arduous process of zoning clearances and planning board approvals — they also must pay rent.

In the potentially years-long interim between securing a business location and securing a host community agreement, the cash loss of monthly payments is massive. When Leah Samura got her host community agreement last month, she’d already been paying $20,000 in rent per month on her JFK St. property for the last two years. Sieh, who got his host community agreement a few months prior, is paying just below that figure.

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Despite the measures — albeit flawed — at the state level, “when it comes to the municipality, they’re totally independent,” Sieh explains. For Black and brown entrepreneurs in this Wild West of an industry, their success is in the hands of their local governments.

“Everybody knows the host community agreement and the local control option [have] been the most corrupting and anti-equitable aspects of our cannabis legalization policy, because it requires you to get property in a municipality,” Sieh says. “That means you're begging the municipality, and if they have friends that they like, you will sit, you will wait, and there is no accountability.”

If the “friends” of the municipality aren’t the Black-owned, Economic Empowerment Applicants, the state’s legitimate efforts to promote equity can’t function. The unnecessary hurdles and complications Economic Empowerment Applicants face showcase an insidious reality. Racism perseveres at a granular level — through convoluted regulations, un-sexy local ordinances, policy that doesn’t seem race-related at all.

Difficulty securing locations and withstanding the costs of rent not only precedes the host community agreement — in many cases in Massachusetts, cannabis entrepreneurs, industry legal experts, and journalists have called the agreement itself unfair.

Host community agreements are a five-year contract between the community and cannabis business owners that require up to three percent of the company’s annual gross income for a “community impact fee.” The nature of these fees vary widely from city to city — from buying the municipality a snow plow to an annual donation to a youth sports league. In a review of 500 community agreements, WGBH reported that two-thirds violated the limits set by the state. Exorbitant fees inevitably favor business owners with deep pockets.

But the Cannabis Control Commision doesn't have the authority to review, approve, or deny the details of the host community agreements. In 2019, the commission sent the state legislature a 727-page report seeking authority to regulate host community agreements. “The commission did not receive any further clarification over the last legislative session,” CCC Director of Communications Maryalice G. Curley wrote in an email.

In a recent case out of Salem, Mass., a prospective cannabis operator sued the city for denying them a host community agreement. They argued that the only businesses granted a host community agreement promised illegally large fees — sums of money exceeding the three percent cap. The group also named the CCC as a defendant, contending that the commission should have denied the other groups state licenses because of their unfair host community agreements. In mid-March, a Superior Court judge dismissed the commission as a defendant.

Title — a former CCC commissioner described as “the people’s weed watchdog” in Boston Magazine — however, thinks the commission should have power to review HCAs “to make sure that they are compliant with the law,” adding, “Towns have been, in my opinion, exerting unlawful control, based on what they’re asking for from the applicant in exchange for that host community agreement.”

The CCC has published a “Guidance for Municipalities” and a “Guidance on host community agreements” for cities, but those documents are just that — guidance. For now, Title says, “the cities and towns have to cooperate.”

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This need for cooperation includes even the smallest business associations and neighborhood groups. Cookies’ ability to serve Boston and Cambridge communities harmed by the War on Drugs is yet to be seen — it’s a half-billion dollar corporation and it’s just not open yet — but the obstacles it experienced while securing its Harvard Square location showcases a kind of NIMBY-ism, “not in my backyard.” Last September, Cambridge locals and business associations sent a letter to city officials opposing Cookies’ location in the Square, citing concern for “families with young children, individuals with respiratory illnesses, the elderly, and many others” who frequent nearby Winthrop Park.

Cambridgians might have voted for cannabis legalization and favored policies like Economic Empowerment, but their rhetoric is hollow without genuine support. To Hughes and Harding, opposition to Cookies from residents and members of various organizations — such as the Harvard Square Business Association and Harvard Square Neighborhood Association — epitomized this contradiction.

In the back-and-forth meetings about Cookies’ opening, Harding recalled a comment from a resident that the new business belonged in a basement. “Why would you say that to a Black-owned business?” he asks. “It’s that Jim Crow thinking, right? Separate but unequal.”

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Even after the two-year moratorium ends this fall, eligibility for a Cambridge cannabis business permit will only expand to include majority women, minority, or veteran owned businesses — indefinitely. The statute reads that an applicant must certify that “it will hire at least 51% of minority, women and/or veterans as employees” and its Board of Directors “be at least 51% minority, women and/or veterans.” Zondervan explains that if Bill Gates wanted to open a dispensary, the city would turn him down. (That is, unless he wrangled together a group of Black people.)

With the end of the Cambridge moratorium approaching, city officials and Economic Empowerment groups are considering its extension. Zondervan and Harding still favor the policy. Because the moratorium went into effect in late 2019, Covid forestalled much of its potential. Even if recreational-use stores open in the fall, they will have essentially no operating time protected by the moratorium.

The Samuras maintain their opposition to the moratorium and think others within Cambridge do, too, even if they’re not speaking up. “I think people are a little embarrassed now realizing that we could have really funded some Economic Empowerment Applicants,” Sieh says. “Instead, we got a [multi-state operator].”

In the coming years, progressive cities and towns across the country will be testing various iterations of cannabis equity measures. Title thinks it will soon become clear which policies are the most effective. “There’s something unusual about trying to use a law and an industry and business licensing to repair harm that was done to a community,” she says. “It’s not necessarily clear exactly what the right way to do that is.”

Even if the Samuras are right — which is difficult to determine — the proposal they favored still centers businesses as vehicles of transformative social equity. But, almost by definition, this is not the role of business; it is the role of government.

“Ultimately, it’s not private businesses that created the harms of the War on Drugs. It’s the government, and the government is also the one with the resources to fix it,” Title says. “So I don’t see businesses as saviors.”

The statutes, the op-eds, and the public statements all directly link the necessity of Economic Empowerment within the cannabis industry to the devastation of the War on Drugs. This is not about diversity for the sake of multiculturalism, but specifically correcting for a racist history of unjust harm. Reparations are at the heart of both the CCC’s social equity programs and the policies Cambridge has enacted.

Which perhaps is why cities and states are faltering, or even stuck: we’re in uncharted, heartbreakingly overdue, terrain.

— Staff writer Josie F. Abugov can be reached at josie.abugov@thecrimson.com.