BOSTON – The black market for marijuana has always been publicized as an unreliable place. From seeing marijuana distribution dramatized in movies like Blow – where George Jung (Johnny Depp) charters a private plane to transport quality product from Mexico to Boston – to songs like “The Weed Man” by Paranoid Castle that talks about the plight and anxiety of “waiting on the weed man,” the media has reflected what consumers know to be true: no matter what the price, no matter how long it takes, and no matter where it’s from, consumers will get their product. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs face a challenge of their own: how to get into the business of selling legal pot.
While the sale, distribution and use of marijuana is still illegal and criminalized on a federal level, many states have their own regulations on both recreational and medicinal use. A few states have completely legalized weed, while others have legislation regarding medicinal use, decriminalization for possession, and other laws that don’t meet the federal level. After the 2016 election, it is legal to sell and use marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes in eight states.
Massachusetts is one of the states affected by recent ballot measures. While possession of marijuana has been decriminalized in the state since 2008 and legalized for medicinal use since 2012, the 2016 ballot measure – Question 4 – was met last month with opposition and concern regarding marijuana’s economic impact, danger to children, and overall regulation. Despite this, the ballot question passed on November 8 with 53.6 percent of voters approving, according to Ballotpedia.
So what does this mean for Massachusetts consumers looking to buy legal weed and for entrepreneurs looking to break into the industry? Simply put: there’s a long road ahead for both consumers and those hoping to break into the legal pot industry.
“Under the provisions, the three-member Cannabis Control Commission, with input from a 15-member Cannabis Advisory Board will begin work on Dec. 15 or shortly thereafter to determine the precise regulations and mechanisms by which marijuana products will be manufactured, sold, and taxed,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University who studies drug policy and contributes to the Huffington Post about the impact of drugs on communities. “It will be some time, likely not until 2018, until we see any retail establishments popping up around the state,” he said, referring to dispensaries.
Come 2018, consumers will benefit from a new level of stability. They will no longer have to go to the black market or wait on the weed man. Instead, they’ll be able to head around the corner and buy their desired strain, extract, or infusion. “As far as buyers, there should not be major barriers of entry here—[they] should be able to just walk into a store and buy, regardless of [their] past.” Beletsky said.
But it won’t be as easy, Beletsky says, for entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal weed business.
“For sellers… I think [the biggest roadblock] will be licensing requirements and costs of compliance, both of which are likely to be considerable. Systematic exclusion of certain groups has been a problem in this area in other states,” said Beletsky.
Just as there are costs to establishing a foothold in the black market, there are steep costs associated with entering the legal market. In “The Failed Promises of Legal Pot,” The Atlantic’s Tom James reports that while many states hope the black market will fizzle out over time as the legal market stabilizes both prices and products, weed’s newfound legal status may not necessarily offer room for those previously employed by the black market. One hurdle for those with criminal records, good though their intentions may be, would be obtaining licenses to sell marijuana legally.
“[The process to move from black market to legal market] is yet to be determined. Specifically for people who are engaged in black market sales, the major questions will revolve around prior criminal records as a barrier of entry for licensing,” Beletsky said. “In the past, such provisions have been criticized as barring many of the lower income people and people of color, since marijuana law enforcement in the past had disproportionately targeted those groups.”
While those involved in the black market may not be able to access the new legal weed market due to their criminal record, accessibility could be limited by more than just prior convictions, according to an article in Metro Boston. “Even people (of color) who were eligible to access the industry really weren’t, because of a lack of capital or how difficult it is for us to become professionals generally,” Shanel Lindsay, an attorney and owner of a medical marijuana device company, told Metro Boston.
In order to level the playing field, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is working to ensure that people of color, low income people, and women are offered equal access to this burgeoning industry. “No state has passed and successfully implemented laws or regulations to ensure racial equity in enterprise opportunities for this emerging industry,” Pressley’s office told Metro Boston.
Pressley is pushing for Massachusetts to be intentional in their provisions and become an example for other states on equal accessibility to the marijuana industry.
For his part, Beletsky thinks this is a positive direction. “I hope that this will be something that will be addressed.”