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New Legislation Lights Way for Recreational Marijuana Shops in Cambridge

Housing Overlay Fights
A City Council meeting in April 2019 where residents and councilors discussed an affordable housing proposal.

Cambridge City Council passed legislation Monday night that lights the way for recreational marijuana businesses to open in Cambridge.

The council voted 7-0 in favor of the “Cannabis Business Permitting Ordinance,” with Councilors E. Denise Simmons and Timothy J. Toomey, Jr. abstaining. Due to the approval of an amendment by Councilors Sumbul Siddiqui and Quinton Zonervan last week, the legislation will prioritize granting permits to those from historically marginalized groups, including women, minorities, and those who have been impacted by the war on drugs.

Before the vote, Siddiqui praised the measure as an effective way to fight inequity.

“The country's racist war on drugs has heavily impacted and criminalized black and brown folks,” she said. “It's our collective responsibility to do the best we can to fight [for] policies that provide equitable access to the wealth and opportunity inherent in this emerging billion dollar cannabis industry.”

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Councilor Craig A. Kelley said he appreciates the “good faith efforts” made by all parties in the debate, and that the law, though flawed, is a positive step.

“I think the state gave us a law that was imperfect, and history gave us a series of horrible things that are worse and imperfect, and we all are trying to do our best to bring us to a better place,” he said. “This isn't where I would have gone, but certainly, I think it's better than it would have been.”

Though Massachusetts legalized the use of marijuana in 2016, Cambridge did not consider legislation on whether businesses can sell the drug for recreational use until earlier this year.

In recent months, the debate has focused on two proposed amendments — one by Siddiqui and Zondervan and the other by Simmons — to the permitting ordinance.

Siddiqui and Zondervan's amendment advocates for imposing a two-year moratorium on the opening of recreational marijuana shops whose owners do not come from historically marginalized groups. In a June interview, Siddiqui called the amendment a “head start” for local businesses over larger corporations.

Simmons’s amendment called on the city to allow current registered medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling recreational marijuana if they contribute annually to a fund that assists “economic empowerment” businesses — those that are run by people who have been disproportionately harmed by past marijuana laws.

In a meeting last week, the Ordinance Committee ultimately decided to advance a version of the bill with Siddiqui and Zondervan’s amendment — but not Simmons’s — to the council for consideration.

Simmons said before the Monday vote that though she agrees with the intent of the proposal, she is disappointed with its final form.

“I think we are ultimately going to look back at this moment and regret how we have chosen to go about this,” she said. “We will be embracing a moratorium that leads to uncertainty as well as further unnecessary and expensive delays.”

The inclusion of Siddiqui and Zondervan’s amendment also means that current medical marijuana dispensaries not falling under the “historically marginalized groups” conditions will not be able to sell recreationally until the two-year period has lapsed. Zondervan said in an interview Monday that he believes dispensaries will not be significantly affected financially by the new law.

“We'll hopefully address some of the inequity by providing opportunities for black and brown entrepreneurs to benefit from cannabis legalization,” he said. “I think that the medical dispensaries will continue to serve their patients, and I also hope that they make good on their promises to help the Economic Empowerment applicants.”

Before the vote, several Cambridge residents spoke about the legislation during the portion of the meeting open to public comments. Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said she believes medical marijuana dispensaries and patients will be negatively impacted. Previously, she has argued that medical marijuana dispensaries unable to sell recreational marijuana will not be able to compete with new businesses and may leave Cambridge.

“Patients aren't asking for a handout. We're only asking for our civil rights to be respected, and it'd be delayed for another two years,” she said.

Cambridge resident Richard Harding said he supports the measure, and that he is “grateful” for the discussion on the issue.

“You know, sometimes these processes aren’t easy to get through,” he said. “And I know that when emotions are high, different things happen.”

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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