“Here we are, fresh in 2023 and the cannabis industry has yet to earn community trust”
Some may have already learned about a promising new loan program in Massachusetts that’s designed to help individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war obtain financing for opening an adult or medical-use cannabis operation.
But while the program is important, hard fought for, and seemingly well-intentioned, me and other cannabis reform advocates are calling it into question, since it turns out one of the five members of the Cannabis Social Equity Advisory Board set up to consult the fund apparently misled the public on a critical related issue, while another member, the chair, was once employed by a multistate cannabis operator linked to a Russian oligarch.
In the case of the first noted appointment, Chris Fevry, owner of the cannabis delivery company Your Green Package, appears to have been less than forthcoming about his relationship with a trade group that sued state regulators over equity rules related to delivery licenses.
As for the chair, Keisha Brice-Teixeira worked as a vice-president of compliance for Curaleaf as recently as 2021, according to online records. She was selected for the board role by outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker in the final days of his second term. In late December, the national site ForensicNews revealed that Curaleaf, which operates more than 140 dispensaries in 21 states including Mass, owes hundreds of millions of dollars to offshore firms linked to sanctioned Russian oligarch and Putin-confidant Roman Abramovich. Those ties could spur multiple investigations, in particular if the firm failed to properly disclose them to regulators here and in other states which require any such relationships to be disclosed on license applications.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commision (CCC) did not respond to a request for comment about whether the state is investigating Curaleaf’s ties to Abramovich. Curaleaf’s statement to ForensicNews can be found here. The company concedes that it borrowed millions of dollars from the company Meliastove, but disputes the amount reported and states that the lender is no longer owned by Abramovich. According to a spokesperson, “Curaleaf has always complied with applicable disclosure and transparency with regard to our financial reporting.”
Over what was an intense and memorable summer of 2020, hundreds of members of the grassroots community—organized as the Massachusetts Cannabis Association for Delivery (MCAD)—testified in a marathon series of hearings before state cannabis regulators, demanding an expansion of then-existing delivery rules to include: a priority period, during which such licenses would only be issued to firms 51% or more owned/controlled by a social equity or economic empowerment applicant, and a new license type that would allow delivery companies to own their own warehouse and vault, purchase product at wholesale from cultivators or manufacturers, and then deliver that product directly to consumers following an online sale.
While those rules would go on to be lauded as a model for other states to follow, they were also ferociously opposed by a trade group representing existing brick-and-mortar retailers which viewed the new equity-priority rules, along with the new delivery-license type, as a threat to their consolidated control over the direct-to-consumer retail market. That trade group, the Commonwealth Dispensary Association (CDA), even went on to file an ill-fated lawsuit against state regulators in January of 2021. While the suit was dropped following a community boycott of the anti-equity posture of the group, the damage was done; per the text of the lawsuit, the CDA pursued a strategy designed to crowd out equity-owned delivery companies from the market in the pursuit of their own profits.
It came as a shock to some in the community when, just days after the lawsuit was filed, Fevry, who was then the president of MCAD, reportedly announced to his team internally that he intended to join the CDA board—apparently at the behest of a Curaleaf employee who had taken control of the CDA. With people asking questions, Fevry released a public statement indicating that he never intended to join the CDA board, but was nonetheless resigning from MCAD. Two years later, state Treasurer Deb Goldberg appointed him to one of the five unpaid positions on the Cannabis Social Equity Advisory Board, which is tasked with consulting “with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development as EOHED administers the Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund.”
Fevry did not respond to a request for comment. Asked about the appointment in the context of Fevry’s resignation from MCAD, a spokesperson for the recently re-elected treasurer said he “has experience building a business, obtaining multiple cannabis licensees, and advocating for communities and applicants that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.” They added that Fevry “will provide valuable insight to the Board and will help create equity in the Massachusetts Cannabis Industry.”
Matthew Gregg, a program director of the Sun Grown Cannabis Alliance who sought one of the loan fund advisory board positions, said an opaque appointment process and years of ducked questions has eroded the little trust left between grassroots activists in the state and officials who oversee the nascent industry.
“How can grassroots community organizers make a difference when corporations are the influence?” Gregg asked. “Do we have a reason to be concerned? Absolutely. … As a board applicant choosing to speak on behalf of the community, I echo the sentiments of farmers and consumers alike. Here we are, fresh in 2023 and the cannabis industry has yet to earn community trust. The only way I see [this pattern changing] is [for the powers that be to] stop making false promises, providing half-assed programs, and calling them change when the only real change is when corporations whisper sweet nothings in [their] ears.”
For Goldie Piff, a local advocate who has spent years working to build an authentic cannabis industry in Massachusetts, the decision to appoint Fevry and a Curaleaf-linked employee is a betrayal.
“For the last five years, the grassroots community has been screaming from the rooftops that something like this was going to happen and we were ignored. … When our leaders refuse to step up and stop these bad faith corporate actors this is exactly what we end up with.”
Goldberg is no stranger to controversy around cannabis-related appointments. Last year, the treasurer was criticized by activists and columnists alike for appointing Shannon O’Brien to chair the Cannabis Control Commission. O’Brien had been listed as a stakeholder for a company with a license application in front of the agency. The details around when O’Brien left that business were murky, and an October 2022 vote by her four fellow commissioners—to deny a final license to the firm in question, Greenfield Greenery, pending further staff investigation—left a lingering shadow of uncertainty and distrust over the appointment process.
For Piff, nothing short of resignations from Fevry and Brice-Teixeira will be sufficient. “Both [should resign] for obvious reasons,” Piff said. “Are state officials really waiting on companies like Curaleaf, or people like Fevry, to fix our issues with the social equity program? Let’s be serious; to this day, people, including farmers, are being left behind—despite being written into law—while opportunities continue to flow to those who are the most connected and who can make the most money for big corporate players.”
Industry observers from other states are watching developments around this loan fund closely. Zach, a New Hampshire medical patient advocate who runs a cannabis community-orientated Discord, said the appointment of anyone associated with Curaleaf is untenable.
“It’s unspeakable that Gov. Baker—in his final days as Governor of Massachusetts—took it upon himself to go against everything the grassroots community has worked towards over the past several years by electing an individual with known corporate interests to the Social Equity Loan Fund Board. Social equity and corporate-backed interests should not overlap.”
Zach added, “It’s time for the CCC, elected officials, and other stakeholders to work with the grassroots community, not just tolerate it.”