MA: Cannabis Association Convening Forum As It Seeks To Build Positive Image

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The sale of retail marijuana in Massachusetts is no longer a debate. It’s an industry. So where’s the industry association?

Well, in the Mass. Continuing Education Center on Winter Place, as it turns out, on Wednesday morning.

The Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, like the underlying business sector, is just getting started. It held its public launch May 15, and is co-sponsoring the latest State House News Forum, an exploration of the problems and possibilities of the new industry with the first retail sales just weeks away. The Cannabis Control Commission meets Tuesday and could well issue the first licenses for retail shops to open as soon as July 1.

Unlike a lot of trade groups that have emerged out of the formation of new industry, this one is starting off with crisis management. The crisis, insiders say, has to do with a stigma around what it means to have pot shops in local business districts – and it’s the association’s job to promote the kind of good business behavior that will make the stigma go away.

The number of promising subsectors in this billion-dollar industry – $1.7 billion, actually, to cite the Department of Revenue’s estimate of 2021 Massachusetts sales – is eye-popping. From real estate to retail display design, farming to finance to facilities management, potential abounds for job creation and business opportunity.

The first panel Wednesday will focus on the scope and form of this opportunity, as a group of marijuana businesspeople discuss what they think the pot industry will look like in Massachusetts a few years from now. Forum signup
But there’s a problem. “People want this business to start up, they just don’t want it in their neighborhood,” said Jim Smith, principal at Smith, Costello and Crawford, another co-sponsor of the Wednesday event. Smith’s been wrangling public policy in Massachusetts since Larry Bird was a rookie, and got involved in marijuana jurisprudence and business development as entrepreneurs began exploring the medical-marijuana market after it was legalized in 2012.

Smith wants the marijuana industry here to succeed. It’s good for his business, and he sees it creating opportunity and easing problems related to the black market and War on Drugs. But as a policy veteran, who’s helped formed trade groups promoting hydro and offshore wind power, he knew this industry needed an organized policy and communications front even more than most others. He’s been driving the formation and professionalization of the association.

“It’s big business, and we need to get it off the ground in the right way in Massachusetts, but it’s not off the ground, and we have make sure that happens, in a fair, reasonable and healthy manner,” Smith said.

James McMahon got involved in the business when his real estate-focused law career – all one year old – began morphing into a marijuana speciality. Three years later, he’s a one-person shop guiding entrepreneurs through property acquisition, permitting and business strategy. McMahon was in the core group of leaders who took the association from informal coffees after CCC meetings last year to an organized business association.

McMahon has been organizing job fairs where entry-level workers can find out about job possibilities in the cultivation, processing and sale of pot in edible and smokable form. They can also get a description of the expungement process – the procedure by which people barred from the business because of a marijuana offense can qualify to work in the industry with a clean slate.

“We very much believe that a rising tide lifts all ships,” McMahon said. “Businesses are only successful if they reflect the communities they serve. Those are the people who are the leaders and pillars and advocates in those communities.” McMahon said the association aims above all to recruit and develop that kind of responsible, diligent and agreeable leader within the industry, so the inaugural wave of marijuana businesses is seen as run by a collection of good actors.

Andrea Cabral is hoping to be perceived that way. Recruited by a venture capitalist type to lead Ascend, an umbrella for a growing facility in Athol and retail store in Boston, the former Suffolk County sheriff said, “First and foremost it’s a business. You focus first on making sure it’s a good experience for consumers.”

Close behind, however, Cabral sees opportunities to change some lives and communities for the better – notably, the kinds of people and places where drug prosecutions have stunted economic and personal growth by sending lots of young men to prison. She is deliberately setting out to recruit past offenders who want to write a new chapter, working with her successor as Suffolk County sheriff, Steven Tompkins.

She quoted a college TV ad she loves: “Nature gives out talent in equal measure, but not opportunity in equal measure.” Cabral and many of her peers see the industry launch, shaped by statute specifically granting a chunk of the action to lower-income and minority communities, as a chance to distribute opportunity fairly.

“I think it’s very rare that an industry starts and you’re present at the creation and have the opportunity to determine whether it accomplishes not only business goals, but larger goals,” she said.