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Application Window For Cannabis Equity Program Reopens In February

“There were a number of folks who didn’t make it into the last class, so there was already that demand. That should be a great starting point going forward.”

It’s been more than seven years since Massachusetts advocates successfully campaigned for a ballot initiative with equity in mind, and nearly six years since state regulators started executing a plan to help people from impacted populations enter the cannabis industry.

In 2023, countless Mass cannabis headlines revolved around the struggles and successes of equity program participants—from changes to rules governing delivery licenses, which are currently held exclusively by Social Equity and Economic Empowerment designees, to troubles getting a state fund that was established to help these applicants up and running.

In order to update and modernize their equity initiatives to keep up with a changing industry, Acting Cannabis Control Commission Executive Director Debbie Hilton-Creek said CCC members and agency staffers have “been having a conversation around revisiting the Social Equity Program … taking a look at our goals, where we are, what our progress has been, and what goals we can set for 2024.” Commissioner Nurys Camargo added that she will be calling meetings with the agency’s full equity team to address “programming” and a “strategic plan … before the February [CCC] meeting.”

Per the commission’s language, “Certified Economic Empowerment (EE) Priority status enables applicants who were able to demonstrate experience in—or business practices that promote—economic empowerment in disproportionately impacted communities to jump the Commission’s licensing queue when applying for an adult-use Marijuana Establishment license.”

EE status, however, was only “provided during a one-time certification period between April 1, 2018 and April 15, 2018, and “the Commission is no longer accepting applications.”

Those who are still interested in comparable opportunities can apply for the CCC’s Social Equity Program (SEP), a “free, statewide technical assistance and training program that creates sustainable pathways into the cannabis industry for individuals most impacted by the War on Drugs including disproportionate arrest and incarceration as the result of marijuana prohibition.” Among the benefits: free technical assistance and training, waived application fees, and exclusive access to certain license types.

Date via Cannabis Control Commission

As of the Dec. 14, 2023 CCC meeting, of 1,533 total applications approved by the commission, 113 were Economic Empowerment applicants, while 320 qualified under the Social Equity Program, and 239 were Disadvantaged Business Enterprises—with 2023 numbers that represented scant improvement over the previous year. Of the 608 businesses that commenced operations by Dec. 14, 25 were EE, 42 were SE, and 74 were DBEs.

The SEP has welcomed three new cohorts to date, and starting Feb. 5 they will begin accepting applications for a fourth. For reasons including an anticipated three-year exclusivity period on social consumption licenses once those regulations are written, Acting CCC Chair Ava Callender Concepcion said they are expecting “to see more people” than in previous years.

Commissioner Bruce Stebbins noted that several hopefuls didn’t get into the last cohort: “There were a number of folks who didn’t make it for any number of reasons, so there was already that demand. That should be a great starting point going forward.”

Stebbins also said, along with Commissioner Camargo, that they should “restructure” the program’s ancillary category, “so that people understand what the opportunities there might be,” as well as the “management and entry-level track to employment” to “expand the breadth of the program.” In order to do that, he added that they have “heard from a number of local organizations that are happy to participate, help recruit, and host events.”

Commissioner Kimberly Roy asked about the length of the enrollment period and a projected start date for the program. To which Hilton-Creek said she will be able to provide those and other specifics at a “later date,” adding, “I hope that we can put a plan together that is more transparent in terms of what really is happening within the Social Equity Program.” There is no information yet on whether there will be a limit to how many people can be in the cohort or what that limit would be.

An “email notice will be sent to Commission stakeholders” with updates, and at Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Roy suggested they make an effort to communicate beyond their current list, in order to reach additional groups of potential licensees like formerly incarcerated people who could qualify for SE status. After that, “applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.”