Raj Dhanda says he has seen the light — and it’s green.
Back in 2017, the Harvard Square landlord filed a federal racketeering lawsuit to prevent the Healthy Pharms medical marijuana dispensary from opening near his Galleria building, calling such businesses “bad neighbors” and essentially claiming its backers were part of an organized criminal group conspiring to violate the US government’s prohibition on the drug. Experts said the case and several others like it threatened to dismantle the fragile legal ceasefire between state and federal cannabis laws — and in turn, the industry built on it.
But in an unusual public letter published last week, Dhanda said his previous views were “misinformed” and have “evolved” after meeting with local Black marijuana entrepreneurs. He said their struggles to open and win local support mirrored his own experiences of racism as an Indian-American doing business in one of the state’s most exclusive retail districts.
“We take it as a point of pride that Cambridge is committed to diversity and equity, but how many of our local businesses . . . and major commercial properties are minority-owned? Not many,” he wrote. “The truth is that I’ve never really felt included or welcome as a person of color in certain business circles in this city.”
Dhanda, having accepted a settlement to end his earlier lawsuit, now wants to host one of those Black-owned marijuana businesses in his property at 57 John F. Kennedy Street, previously a Staples.
Under a new proposal, local real estate agent and cannabis entrepreneur Damond Hughes would form a joint venture with famed California marijuana brand Cookies to open that company’s first East Coast pot shop in the space.
“I was inspired by and felt included by their approach, and their vision of bringing equity to an emerging industry,” Dhanda said of Hughes’ team in his letter. “When I learned that so few licenses across the entire [state] had been awarded to economic empowerment applicants, and that such a promising group had been denied space by other building owners, I knew there was an opportunity to . . . do something bigger than just filling another commercial space.”
Hughes, who will own 51 percent of the new store, has been designated by the state Cannabis Control Commission as an “economic empowerment” applicant, a priority licensing status granted to firms that are led by, employ, or benefit members of communities with high rates of drug arrests.
On Monday, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Kathleen McCarthy upheld a Cambridge ordinance giving economic empowerment applicants and participants in the commission’s similar social equity program exclusive access to recreational licenses in the city for two years, The decision deals a legal setback to corporate medical dispensary Revolutionary Clinics, which has sued to overturn the rule.
“This is historic,” Hughes said of the joint venture. “Being a Black business owner and having an opportunity to open not just in Harvard Square but on that [prominent] corner — it’s a great feeling. It motivates you to really do something special.”
To open for business, the proposed store must first receive permits from the city before applying to the state cannabis commission, a process that can take months or years.
To grow his sought-after Cookies cannabis strains in Massachusetts, Cookies founder Gilbert Milam (better known by his rap name “Berner”) has licensed the company’s proprietary genetics to another Black-owned Massachusetts marijuana company, Green Soul Organics. Green Soul plans to cultivate Cookies cannabis in Fitchburg, plus develop its own strains as potential additions to the Cookies catalogue.
Green Soul also plans to take 9.9 percent ownership in any other future Cookies-branded outlets in Massachusetts, each of which will be a separate joint venture in which a different local Black or brown entrepreneur holds the majority stake. Those entrepreneurs will have access to both Cookies products, made by Green Soul, and its financing, operating procedures, and business expertise.
Green Soul co-owner Taba Moses said forming such joint ventures could be the best way yet to achieve equity in the marijuana industry — as called for by state law, which explicitly acknowledges the yawning racial disparities in cannabis arrests — without giving the more established company effective control of the business, a problem in similar past deals.
“The only way to have real equity in cannabis is to let Black entrepreneurs open in prime locations,” Moses said in interview. “If the major players own all the prime locations, and we’re left with Dorchester, Mattapan, and the back of some highway, we’re going to be boxed out . . . Right now, the fight is to be in the front of the bus.”
And, Milam boasted, by bringing some of the country’s most popular marijuana varieties to Massachusetts, Cookies will pressure other producers in the state to improve the quality of their middling weed.
“We’re going to bring real vibes and real knowledge to the Massachusetts industry that other operators may not have,” he said in an interview. “We just want to spoil people’s lungs, and see what we can do for the tastemakers and connoisseurs.”
Exceptional cannabis might not be enough to win some neighbors over, however. At a community outreach meeting last week, Harvard Square Neighborhood Association representative Suzanne Blier said the group opposed the project because it fears marijuana customers will light up in nearby Winthrop Square park and “destroy the atmosphere” of the area.
“There are lots of basements,” she said, urging Hughes to find a less prominent location.
Hughes denounced that remark, saying it reminded him that little has changed since his grandfather was forced to recruit a white straw buyer in order to purchase a license for his Dorchester liquor store. He said his store had detailed plans to prevent crowding and public pot consumption.
“It reminds me of those old “Blacks-need-not-apply” scenarios, and it’s further evidence of the racism in the society we live in,” he said.
Moses added that he hopes the store and its community efforts will help restore the neighborhood’s previous, more eclectic feel.
“We lost a lot of the arts and culture because of gentrification,” he said. “We want to attract all kinds of people from all over and bring back that Harvard Square, with concerts in the ’pit.’ It has to be an inclusive place for all of us.