The Cannabis Conundrum

Graduates inspired by the emerging industry push on despite challenges

It’s rare to see entrenched opposition to an illegal substance collapse in real time. But such is the case with marijuana, where the foundations of criminalization are cracking and giving way to legalization, one state at a time. Rarer still is the opportunity to build an entirely new industry and legal landscape from the rubble. Several Suffolk Law alumni have embraced this unusual opportunity to become trailblazers in the nascent and legally complex recreational cannabis industry in Massachusetts.

The changes came so quickly that none of them could have anticipated their work in the field just a few years ago.

Laury Lucien JD'15

A standout student at Suffolk Law, Laury Lucien JD’15 (above) spent her first two and a half years after law school at the prestigious firm Holland & Knight, where she focused on mergers and acquisitions as well as corporate healthcare law. She worked closely with regulators and municipal agencies, ideal training for her next and unexpected career venture—into the highly regulated cannabis industry.

Today, Lucien, who grew up in Haiti, is chief legal strategist at Greenlight Business Solutions, one of six organizations recently chosen by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to help train cannabis entrepreneurs and professionals. She’s also a founder of Major Bloom, a business that will cultivate, manufacture, and sell cannabis.

Lucien sits on the Board of Advisors of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, which works to ensure a safe marijuana industry. And she teaches Cannabis Law at Suffolk. She cites her own law school education in preparing her to navigate the challenges of the budding industry. “Cannabis is multidisciplinary—you need to know banking law, securities law, you need to know real estate and municipal law, corporate law. You need all those pieces,” she says.

You also need access to capital. That doesn’t come easy in an industry selling a substance that remains federally prohibited. The federal ban means entrepreneurs don’t have access to traditional commercial bank lending.

Lacking those resources, it can be nearly impossible to start a cannabis company—something Lucien learned firsthand. She had previously pursued a medical-use cannabis license in Massachusetts, but found the costs of entry out of reach. “You had to prove that you had half a million dollars just to apply for a license, so it basically kicked us out,” she says. “We were having tremendous difficulty raising funds as people who weren’t born into privilege.”

After striking out in medical marijuana, Lucien didn’t give up. She joined forces with a core group of partners, and in 2017, she founded Major Bloom. The company focuses on the adult-use market and is 98% owned by people of color.

Leveling the Playing Field

When Massachusetts legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, the law included an economic empowerment mandate and a first-in-the-nation social equity component. The provisions are aimed at encouraging “full participation” in the regulated cannabis industry by minority-led businesses and people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by drug laws.

Social attitudes toward cannabis may be shifting, but that hasn’t erased the damage done by decades of discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws, says Suffolk Law Professor Emeritus Eric Blumenson. “Research shows that white and black populations use marijuana at about the same rate, but arrests, convictions, and jail sentences have been many times higher for black communities,” he says. The peak of the decades-long war on drugs that packed U.S. prisons saw 800,000 marijuana arrests annually. And while many of those arrested for cannabis initially dodged jail time, many others “ultimately went to jail for inconsequential probation violations based on the original conviction,” Blumenson says.

From his perch atop the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, Shawn Collins sees a major policy challenge in figuring out how to create an equitable industry. Collins is executive director of the CCC, which regulates the industry in the state. He’s also a double Ram, who earned his BS in Government from Suffolk University in 2008 and his JD from Suffolk Law in 2013. He went on to work on healthcare policy in state government and became legislative and policy director for State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose office oversees alcohol policy. With the 2016 legalization ballot question pending, it fell to Collins to figure out the most effective and efficient ways to regulate cannabis.

“That’s really how I got introduced to cannabis policy,” he said. The independent CCC was created, and Collins was a natural for the executive director post. When he started two years ago, there were no desks, no phone numbers, no employees, not even an address, mirroring the state of Massachusetts’ fledgling cannabis industry. Today the Commission has grown from just Collins to 60 employees, though they are still in temporary office space. He’s spent much of his time building the nuts and bolts of the agency, which has a bureaucratic role as a licensing and regulatory agency. But Collins adds that the cannabis statute, shaped by the ballot question, also includes a mission—that the industry, as it develops, should be inclusive and represent the communities where facilities are located.

“It acknowledges, frankly, that while cannabis has been illegal, both federally and locally, there are folks that have been disproportionately harmed by the enforcement of those laws,” Collins says.

Part of the Commission’s focus is on fostering economic empowerment, including making it easier for small operators and entrepreneurs to launch their businesses. But Collins says the federal prohibition is inhibiting those startups: “If you want to open up a bar or a restaurant or an ice cream shop, HVAC or plumbing, or any small business—you name it—you can get a bank loan, and you can present your business plan. You cannot do that in the cannabis context.”

Andrea Cabral JD'86

Andrea Cabral JD’86 (above) says writing social equity into the regulations was the right thing to do, but adds that the execution still needs improvement. Cabral, former Suffolk County sheriff and Massachusetts secretary of public safety, now serves as chief executive of Ascend Mass LLC, a subsidiary of the multi-state cannabis retail operator Ascend Wellness. “You can write it down, and you can make it the law, but the real issue in leveling the playing field is access to capital,” Cabral says.

Cabral and Kimberly Napoli JD'15 are appointees to the state's 25-member Cannabis Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the CCC on the regulation and taxation of marijuana in Massachusetts. Napoli is senior director at Parallel, an international cannabis operation with regional retail dispensaries and consumer brands; she also heads diversity programs for New England Treatment Access, LLC. 

Despite a decades-long career in law enforcement, Cabral says she never understood the villainizing of cannabis. She sees alcohol as far more destructive. “A lot has to do with their respective histories, but it just always struck me as unfair,” she says.

In legalized cannabis, Cabral saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter an industry at the ground level. “You can go through your entire life, through generations, and never have a brand-new industry to consider being a part of,” she said. “There aren’t that many industries, new or otherwise, that present that kind of opportunity for women or a person of color that this one presents.”

Still, like Lucien, Cabral adds that it is nearly impossible to start a cannabis company without the help of private equity, an issue that she says needs to be resolved.

It Helps to Know the Law

While she says it’s imperfect, Lucien credits the social equity mandate with opening at least some avenues for minority entrepreneurs to get into the industry—including herself. But she has also relied heavily on the experience she has gained along the way, including her Suffolk Law education. Without knowledge of the law, problems can quickly arise, she explains. For example, without access to traditional banking, cannabis operators often turn to friends and family for funding, not realizing that those investments may be considered offerings prohibited by securities law. Real estate law proves useful when negotiating a lease or sale agreement or navigating the special permit process. Corporate law is essential when forming a company among partners, and tax law is crucial. “The amount you have to pay in taxes is insane, and you need to know tax law. You have to have a great accounting team,” she says.

In the end, Collins says successfully creating an equitable industry will require assistance from private industry, specifically, access to banks. In the meantime, the CCC is working toward building a strong infrastructure as well as sustainable equity programs so that if and when banks can come to the table, they will be more willing to lend.

Marijuana leaves gathered in one spot 

All say they are hopeful that federal prohibition will be lifted in favor of a clear, consistent system of regulation that is accompanied by public health and safety measures. And while Cabral expects federal prohibition to fall, full legalization may happen in fits and starts, leaving a legal hodgepodge in the interim. To groundbreaking pot pioneers like Lucien and Cabral, that means hard work ahead, but also an exciting challenge. “It presents a lot of great opportunities to think outside the box and be creative,” Cabral says, “because the path has not been trod already on a lot of this stuff.”