Marijuana Entrepreneurs Protest ‘Big Cannabis’ At State House

Goldie Piff was one of the cannabis advocates at the State House Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

BOSTON – Frustrated marijuana advocates and entrepreneurs rallied against “Big Cannabis” at the State House Wednesday, saying the state has broken its promise to boost smaller pot companies.

Speakers at the protest, most of them small-scale growers and manufacturers, outlined a variety of forces — from restrictions imposed by local officials to proposed regulations that would freeze them out of the delivery market — that they believe are stifling competition and tilting the recreational industry in favor of large, wealthy operators.

That’s inconsistent with state law, which emphasizes the licensure of small, local marijuana businesses.

“There’s a handful of companies that own all the supply,” said Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council. “We’re looking for a piece of the pie.”

Among other demands, the protesters said the state Cannabis Control Commission should prioritize license applications from two categories of small producers: craft co-operatives, which are collectively owned groups of cultivators who grow marijuana at different locations but sell and market it under a single license and brand, and so-called “micro-businesses,” locally owned firms that grow or buy modest quantities of marijuana and process it into edibles and other products.

The commission, which is in the process of revising its regulations, has already discounted the fees it charges both types of companies. But many operators say they are having trouble winning municipal approval, a necessary step before obtaining a state license — an often long, political process that’s most easily navigated by hiring a pricey attorney or well-connected former official.

Co-ops and micro-businesses that do manage to get local sign-off shouldn’t then have to wait in line for a state license behind big investor-backed firms, the protesters argued.

“I’ve been paying for an empty warehouse for the last two years,” Ed DeSousa, a prospective cultivator and processor who helped organize the rally, said at the event. “The only thing I can do with that is take my kids for bike rides in the wintertime. Other than that, it’s a drain.”

DeSousa and other speakers added that the delays are undermining state efforts to move gray-market delivery services and other underground operators into the regulated market.

“These are people who have been working in this industry a long time and deserve the right to be legalized,” DeSousa said, calling them “pioneers” who have long brought cheaper and better marijuana to medical cannabis patients.

So far, the commission has issued preliminary licenses to just three microbusinesses, while another seven such applications are awaiting review. Meanwhile, only two co-ops have submitted applications, and none have been licensed.

Blake Mensing, an attorney who represents small marijuana firms, suggested steering a portion of state marijuana tax revenue to cities and towns that approve co-ops and micro-businesses, providing an incentive to local officials.

Speakers at the rally also demanded that the commission allow co-ops and micro-businesses to deliver marijuana to consumers’ homes — or at least sell their products to delivery services.

Under a proposed commission policy expected to be voted on later this month, only participants in the commission’s social equity and economic empowerment programs could apply for delivery licenses for at least two years, and all products would have to be sourced from brick-and-mortar pot shops.

Commissioner Britte McBride and other proponents have said the proposal would make it affordable to open a delivery business; operators would need to outfit a vehicle with lockboxes and cameras, but wouldn’t have to buy or lease a property, nor meet the state’s onerous requirements around packaging and securely storing marijuana. That, in turn, could offer disenfranchised communities a realistic path into the industry.

But critics at the rally noted that the commission had earlier discussed reserving delivery permits for micro-businesses and complained the proposal would only steer more business to the established firms behind nearly all of the state’s open retail shops.

They also blasted the marijuana available in regulated stores, calling it low-quality, mass-produced “cabbage” that pales in comparison to the craft cannabis grown by passionate locals.

“We take time, we take care — and we grow stuff that nobody else in the market right now is able to grow,” said Andrew Mutty of the Beantown Greentown cultivation group, as protesters chanted “more weed, less greed!”

The commission declined to comment. But Commissioner Shaleen Title, who observed the rally, said she and other regulators are listening.

“Today I heard small businesses highlighting the gap between what the law promised and what they’re seeing and experiencing,” Title said. “It underlined what we already know at the state level: We have a lot of work to do.”