Cambridge’s Weed Policy Prioritized Social Justice. Some Dispensary Owners Say It’s Left Them High and Dry.

Since legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use in 2018, Massachusetts has seen nearly $6 billion in recreational marijuana sales. But to some, Cambridge has failed to capitalize on this momentum.
By Michael A. Maines

Massachusetts has had nearly $6 billion in recreational marijuana sales since legalizing it for adult recreational use six years ago — but some have said Cambridge failed to capitalize on the momentum.
Massachusetts has had nearly $6 billion in recreational marijuana sales since legalizing it for adult recreational use six years ago — but some have said Cambridge failed to capitalize on the momentum. By Michael Hu

When Leah Samura left her job in 2019 to open a cannabis business in Harvard Square, she didn’t know it would be five years before her shop — Yamba Boutique — opened its doors.

Yamba Boutique opened Sunday on Church Street, making it the latest entrant to the Cambridge cannabis market, alongside Western Front, Herbwell, Kush Groove, Blue River, and a sister Yamba location in Central Square.

The dispensaries have opened at a time when states across the country have increasingly warmed up to legal cannabis, both answering demands from activists to reverse what they see as overbearing and discriminatory laws and hoping to take advantage of a lucrative source of tax revenue.

Since legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use in 2018, Massachusetts has seen nearly $6 billion in recreational marijuana sales.

But to some, Cambridge has failed to capitalize on this momentum.

When the city first established the permitting process for the newly legalized marijuana industry in 2018, it stipulated that from September 2019 to September 2021, only “Economic Empowerment” applicants could be considered for permits.

To qualify, prospective cannabis purveyors had to meet certain criteria laid out by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, such as being from an area disproportionately affected by the war or drugs or having majority Black or Latino ownership.

The moratorium was extended twice — in 2021 and 2023 — and now runs until September of this year.

Many dispensary owners praised Cambridge’s progressive approach to retail cannabis permitting, recognizing it as an important way to increase minority representation in local business.

But some said that the city’s policies — combined with the newness of the cannabis industry to both state and local regulators — have impeded the growth of the industry.

‘Remedying Past Wrongs’

When the city introduced its selective permitting process, it made clear that its goals were oriented around social justice. Its policies aimed to support minority entrepreneurs, especially those who were most sharply impacted by the war on drugs.

“They were extremely forward-moving given the regulatory structures they placed to give priority and preference to the minority-owned enterprises such as ourselves,” said Herbwell Cannabis co-owner Arish Halani.

Beyond enabling independent entrepreneurs to enter Cambridge’s cannabis industry, the city’s decision to prioritize EE applicants served partially to redress the harms of the war on drugs, according to Dennis Benzan, the co-owner of Western Front.

“It’s a way of remedying past wrongs,” Benzan in an interview.

Halani and his sister Sareena Halani opened Herbwell on Massachusetts Ave. last November — during what Arish called a “relatively slow” time of year for marijuana sales.

However, because of the head start afforded to EE cannabis business owners, the Halanis were able to weather the slow months as they waited for business to pick up.

“The moratorium was instrumental in leveling the playing field for people like us as minority entrepreneurs,” Sareena Halani said.

The moratorium on non-EE business owners prevented multi-state medical marijuana retailers from pivoting to recreational sales, corporations that Sareena Halani said would have been hard to compete with.

Benzan explained that careful allocation of retail cannabis permits could help reimagine an industry whose illicit nature had for so long made it damaging to those involved.

“The idea was to create wealth for communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs,” Benzan said.

‘Winners and Losers’

While many supported Cambridge’s selective cannabis permitting, some have criticized the moratorium as being too restrictive.

Sean D. Hope, a co-owner of Central Square’s Yamba Market and Harvard Square’s Yamba Boutique, said that the limited pool of potential business owners created by the EE program made it harder to raise money or find partners for a Cambridge-based cannabis business.

“Because of the way these empowerment licenses are set up, you are extremely limited on raising capital, bringing in partners, doing the things that businesses need to do,” said Hope.

Hope said that the ban on non-EE applicants “made a lot of sense” when Cambridge was first handing out cannabis permits, but that now “business owners are dealing with market realities.”

“I think this is where well-intentioned government says, ‘We’re gonna pick winners and losers,’ right?” Hope said.

Still, he called for the city to loosen its approach.

“Just allow us the opportunity and the flexibility and let the market decide,” Hope said.

“If you give someone a special license without the flexibility and options, you really created a system that’s doomed to fail,” he added.

In addition, some expressed disappointment that the selective permitting extinguished a chance to put the resources of large brands to work for independent retailers.

Samura said that without the moratorium, corporations with deep pockets would have been allowed to enter the Cambridge market, creating taxable revenue that could have gone to support minority business owners.

In a 2021 interview with The Crimson, she said that the exclusivity period could cost her and other cannabis entrepreneurs millions of dollars.

In a recent interview, she said her stance has not changed.

“I still feel the same. I feel like if we would have done that…” Samura trailed off. “There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

‘We Don’t Have Millionaire Family Members’

Despite concerns, the city maintained that the moratorium provided a necessary head start for business that otherwise would have been overtaken by better-resourced companies.

“The efforts to prioritize economic empowerment and social equity applicants was motivated by the understanding that, without implementing priority groups, existing companies could potentially transition or expand their businesses into cannabis retail businesses and prevent new, locally owned businesses from having a chance to succeed,” Jeremy C. Warnick, a city spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement.

In addition to concerns about medical marijuana providers pivoting to recreational retail, some have expressed concerns that the entry of national recreational cannabis retailers could push independent operators out.

One example of this came when Cookies Cannabis, a Los Angeles-based dispensary chain, faced pushback when its planned opening was announced in 2020.

But Samura disputed the validity of these criticisms, asserting that partnering with a large brand like Cookies is often the only way a local entrepreneur can make it in the cannabis industry.

“We don’t have millionaire family members,” Samura said. “I think that it’s unfair, that people want to tell other people how they should make it in the business.”

Competition, she said, is simply a part of being an entrepreneur, no matter who those competitors are.

“There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts here, you cross the street and there’s a Starbucks,” Samura said. “You know what I mean? It’s just the nature of businesses.”

For Hope, Samura, Benzan, and the Halanis, the attempt to promote minority representation in the Cambridge cannabis industry served an important purpose. Still, they said, it had a flawed execution.

“You have these artificial rules that aren’t really based on business principles, which are coming to roost,” Hope said.

—Staff writer Michael A. Maines can be reached at Follow him on X @m_a_maines.

Cambridge City CouncilGovernmentCambridgeState PoliticsMassachusettsDrugsMetroFront Middle FeatureFeatured Articles