Since the spring of 2020, marijuana companies trying to open facilities in Boston have been required to win approval from two separate city agencies: the relatively new Boston Cannabis Board and the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA).
Now, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is throwing its weight behind an effort to streamline pot licensing by shifting nearly all authority to the seven-member cannabis board, part of its broader push to simplify the process of starting up a small business in the city.
Wu officials at a public hearing this week said the changes, first proposed by former city councilor Lydia Edwards, would make marijuana licensing faster and more predictable for applicants and neighbors.
“It’s a very extensive permitting and licensing process that takes years and is very cumbersome and challenging for people to get through,” said Bryan Glascock, a deputy director at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which convened the meeting. “We feel like the time is right to phase the zoning piece out of it and let the [cannabis board] do what it does best.”
But the proposal was met with skepticism by a number of neighborhood groups and city councilors Kenzie Bok and Michael Flaherty, who said it would weaken consideration of concerns raised by residents living near proposed marijuana facilities — especially in mixed commercial-residential districts where most businesses must win ZBA permission to open.
Critics urged the planning agency to leave the ZBA in charge of siting marijuana firms and awarding exceptions to Boston’s required half-mile buffer between cannabis facilities. (The buffer was intended to prevent clusters of pot shops, but the city’s geography means officials will need to allow some marijuana retailers closer to one another to meet a state minimum of around 52 recreational shops.)
“A lot of folks voted for [legal marijuana] but don’t necessarily want it in their neighborhood,” Flaherty testified, adding that Boston must ensure “no one neighborhood is overrun by cannabis cafes and pot shops.”
Glascock and other Wu officials countered that the cannabis board is well equipped to weigh such matters. And they argued the proposal would give a needed boost to so-called equity applicants — local entrepreneurs from communities hit hardest by drug arrests, who under city ordinance are entitled to an equal number of licenses as those won by other “general” applicants.
“Anytime you have a complex process like that, it impacts the people the hardest who have the least resources,” Glasock said.
Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, noted that seven marijuana companies have been approved by the cannabis board after several public hearings only to be denied later by the ZBA, of which four were equity applicants. He said that unlike the cannabis board, which awards points to applicants using explicit criteria, the ZBA’s decisions lack a clear basis and recently prompted a lawsuit against the city from a spurned pot firm.
“This is going to continue to happen if we leave the process the way it is,” Idowu said. “There’s already a robust community process for cannabis establishments . . . [and] the requirement for an additional ZBA hearing is now an unneeded barrier.”
Unsurprisingly, cannabis license applicants strongly support the proposal, which is now under review by the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
“Please, end the system of double jeopardy,” urged equity applicant Jody Mendoza, whose proposed marijuana store was shot down by the ZBA after winning a cannabis board license. “Equity applicants have the highest hill to get over, but when [we’re] faced with going in front of the ZBA, it’s another opportunity for people to come out and stop us. Please end the confusion and give us a chance.”
Other entrepreneurs who testified at the hearing described meeting extensively with the cannabis board to come up with plans for mitigating traffic and other potential nuisances, and said the agency is far from a rubber stamp.
“They go above and beyond when it comes to vetting companies,” said Kobie Evans, co-owner of the Pure Oasis marijuana shop in Grove Hall, whose attempt to open a second store in Brighton was rejected by the ZBA.
In contrast, he said, “the hearing with the ZBA lasts less than five minutes.”
“For operational efficiencies, it makes sense to only have one agency siting cannabis businesses,” Evans said. “When you have two agencies, one that isn’t that well-versed in cannabis, that’s how you get [disproportionate] outcomes.”