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Black-owned cannabis businesses move forward

City and state equity programs fast-track marijuana shops

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO
Black-owned cannabis businesses move forward

Equity programs and community supporters are boosting Black business owners to the forefront of the cannabis community.

Future storefront Rooted in Roxbury faced some community opposition but its owners secured a preliminary license to operate a cannabis business in Nubian Square. Owned by Brian and Joanne Keith, in partnership with Solomon Chowdhury and his wife Rokeya Begum, the store and its location drew some contention. After hearing concerns that it was too close to a school, the group moved and settled on a site at 2177 Washington St.

“It really wasn’t opposition against us, per se. I would say it was more opposition against cannabis in general,” Keith told the Banner. With funding from Chowdhury, a real estate developer who also owns Shanti restaurants and Dudley Cafe, and 40 community investors, they have secured overwhelming support to overcome the opposition.

Keith says they could have gotten support from a larger, out-of-state company, as some companies are looking for local entrepreneurs to partner with, but his team wanted to retain a community-centered focus.

“It’s virtually going to look like that big coffee shop on every single corner. Do you want that for cannabis in the city of Boston? Or, do we want … something that’s more manageable, owned and operated locally, and the benefits go to the community?”

City Council President Kim Janey and Mayor Martin Walsh established an ordinance last year that set up the Boston Cannabis Board and the Social Equity Program. Rooted in Roxbury qualified for and received significant technical assistance because the owners have resided in an area that was disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs policies. Brian and Joanne Keith are of Black or African American descent, and they have lived in Boston for at least the last seven years.

There are six other qualifications, and each equity applicant must have at least three. The ordinance recognizes that cannabis has the potential to become a multimillion dollar industry, and at the time it was introduced, there were no minority-owned cannabis stores licensed in the state.

One business that didn’t make the city’s equity requirements still found benefits at the state level. The owners of Evergreen, Sean Berte and Armani White, qualify as equity applicants under the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s program because both were previously arrested for non-violent marijuana charges.

As an equity applicant with the state, the pair also receive technical training and assistance with getting licensed, and their application processing time is expedited. White, an activist and director of campaigns at the Center for Economic Democracy, met Berte while advocating for the equity program.

“I think we both were committed to reparations in the marijuana industry and generally,” White said.

Though Berte isn’t Black, he says he recognizes that White, as a Black person, was more heavily affected by the War on Drugs.

“I’m definitely a smaller portion of the population that got in trouble in the drug war. We’re looking at three to seven [years] for Black and brown people going through the same thing I went through,” Berte said.

Their shop may be the first in Hyde Park. They are passionate about keeping the economy local and hiring contractors who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

“We want to have one hundred other ‘Sean and Armanis,’” White said.

Unlike Rooted in Roxbury, Evergreen did strike a deal with a larger cannabis company called Mission. Mission will manage the property while Berte and White use their money for the rest of the long road to opening.

Both Rooted in Roxbury and Evergreen are now negotiating a host community agreement with the city of Boston. Next, they move on to the Zoning Board of Appeal, where another Black business owner is advocating for his recreational marijuana shop.

Cleon Byron, an equity applicant with the state, plans to open a store at Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Street. With very little community opposition, he focused on the classes provided by the state, which he said has provided a lot of great advice. He was part of the second cohort, which contains 280 accepted applicants.

“I know that I will continue bringing jobs to people of color. I’m not doing this just for me,” Byron said.

He thanked Council President Janey for the work she did to uphold economic equity in Boston, despite himself not qualifying for the program she established.

Janey expressed thanks to the many advocates and entrepreneurs whose work helped get the legislation passed but added that there is still more to be done.

“Now that we have it passed, and we have the board up and running, we need to watch carefully to make sure it is working how it is intended to work, and that is to ensure equity, transparency, clarity and accountability,” Janey told the Banner.

After meeting city-level qualifications, each store goes before the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission for further licensing. All three plan to open at some point in 2021.