Think about some things your community could really use, say a new traffic light, improved high school football fields, maybe even a new public park. All of these things and many more have been paid for by marijuana shops in various communities across the state. The pot shops negotiate these perks directly with the local communities in contracts called Host Community Agreements, or HCAs. No state or federal agency keeps track of these agreements in negotiations. WGBH News‘ Tori Bedford and Amanda Beland went through nearly 500 host community agreements and found that nearly two thirds of them call for these incentives and that the agreements aren’t really helping the communities envisioned by the legal marijuana system here. Tori and Amanda documented what they found in a two-part series for WGBH News. They spoke with WGBH News’ All Things Considered Arun Rath about the series. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So first, give us a quick sketch of what you found when you scrutinize these agreements?
Amanda Beland: So really part one looked at host community agreements and the incentives that you mentioned. Under state law, municipalities can ask for an impact fee that’s capped at 3-percent of a business’s gross annual sales. What we found in the majority of the agreements in the state was that communities were requesting more than that fee.
Tori Bedford:-And in part two, we looked at how that system obviously disadvantages all businesses, all small businesses in the state. But there is a system that was supposed to be set up when Massachusetts started recreational marijuana here. They promised people of color, minority-owned businesses, people who’d been disadvantaged by the war on drugs. They promised then that they would have an advantage in that they would get to skip the line. And what we found in part two is that that is not the case. And there were many, many situations where there are business owners who are just waiting around, while wealthier businesses who are not part of this so-called priority programs were getting to skip the line by making these payments and incentives.
Rath: Amanda, how did you find the actual agreements and how did you go through them?
Beland: So it really depended on the municipality. If I went on the city or town website and they had a process, I followed that. Otherwise it was really just emailing the city or town clerk. It took me about three months to gather all of the agreements and to go through them. That’s not all the agreements in the state. They’re about 15 or 20 cities and towns that either never got back to me or got back to me partially. There were two towns that charged me — or wanted to charge me money — for the agreements: Orange and Millville. I appealed both of those estimates to the Secretary of State’s office. We ultimately did not get the agreements.
Rath: Did you find that mostly it was the towns initiating these exchanges or the businesses who were making the offers?
Bedford: We actually saw that it was both. Bigger businesses can come in, they’re multi-state operators. They can say, hey, we can offer you these incentives. You should pick us. A couple of days before we published this, I was reading in the “Boston Herald,” there’s an article by Erin Tiernan which was talking about how the town of Dartmouth was putting out advertisements for marijuana businesses to come in. And in their public advertisement, they lay out what they’re asking for: “a community impact fee equal to 3-percent of the establishments gross sales, $25,000 in annual contributions to local nonprofit organizations and $340,000 to town services over the first four years of operation.”
That’s public. And this kind of shows how normalized it is. And I was talking to Ed DeSousa, who runs RiverRun Gardens out of Newburyport, he’s also featured in our story. He was saying that he gives charitable contributions to Newburyport, but because they’re not in his agreement, that’s where he draws the line. He ultimately was saying you still have to pay to play. This is what Ed had to say about it:
“It takes a community to accept the business in because even though it’s free enterprise, the community can just outright demonize your business. However, if you’re contributing to the community, they’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Rath: Can you talk about how the process affects the minority owned businesses? And these are the businesses that were supposed to have the leg up getting into the marijuana business?
Bedford: There were a lot of minority businesses saying, hey, we were told … like Chauncey Spencer, who is featured in this story. He was told that he was going to be first in line and that he was a priority candidate. But he’s still waiting because while the CCC has recognized that this is a problem for these candidates who were told that they could skip the line, the people who applied before they changed the regulations are still waiting. So he’s one of those people. So now you don’t have to necessarily have a property or secure the capital to get your application processed. But he had to do all of that, so he’s still paying $5,000 in rent on this empty building. He’s driving Lyft and Uber. He doesn’t know what to do.
There’s this guy, Marcus Johnson, who’s a Social Equity candidate. He is a businessman He was kind of ruthless about this. And he was saying, you know what? Any business that you go into, you need to be a business man. You need to be able to make these deals. You can’t be crying about it. You need to have the capital. But at the same time, after I talked to him for a couple of hours in a shop, he opened up to me about his father, who was killed as a result of the war on drugs in Cambridge when Marcus was 10 years old. He sees this ultimately as a way to get justice for what happened to his father and to help his community:
Bedford: “You ever think about like what he would think of you in your success in this field.
Johnson: “I think he’d be happy that like this can become full circle, like there’s a bright side of that of how his life ended and how it can continue through me.”
Rath: Looking forward from the series and from this reporting, what’s next? Is there any indication that these practices will change? Given that a lot of people seem really unhappy about them and they also seem to be against the rules as they were originally set out?
Beland: Well, there’s a bill that’s been approved in the House that will now be up for debate in the Senate, hopefully in the next couple weeks. If approved and signed by Governor Baker, it would provide some more clarification on alot of these issues. I can’t say if it would solve them. It would give the CCC, the Cannabis Control Commission, the authority to review the host community agreements. Right now, they aren’t. And it would also limit what can be charged in the agreements to that 3-percent community impact fee.
Bedford: And having conversations with Shaleen Title, who’s a Commissioner for the CCC, I think that they are desperate to get ahead of this and exert some kind of control, but they do feel that their hands are tied. I think everyone in the state is calling for that. The problem is, while we figure all of this out legislatively, it just can’t happen fast enough for these people who continue to pay exorbitant rents, insane fees. They’re just kind of waiting around. They’ve signed these contracts. There are so many of them that I don’t know what’s going to happen now. So it really just can’t happen fast enough.