The Cannabis Debate discusses marijuana’s past, future

Aja N. Atwood, CEO and Co-Founder of Trella Technologies, LLC, addresses the audience at the Cannabis Debate hosted by the ExCollege in the Distler Performance Hall on March 29. (Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily)

Over 200 people registered to attend The Cannabis Debate, an event hosted by the Experimental College (ExCollege) to discuss the changing landscape around medical and recreational marijuana, according to an email sent to registrants. The event, which took place on Friday, was part of Voices from the Edge, an annual lecture series that “showcases individuals who innovate, break new ground, and lead the way,” according to the event program.

The Cannabis Debate lecture event stems from the ExCollege course of the same name that was offered during the spring 2019 semester and co-instructed by Ernest Anemone and John De La Parra.

The debate consisted of a two-hour panel discussion followed by two breakout sessions. During the breakout sessions, attendees participated in 30-minute discussions with panelists, who were experts in their fields, addressing topics such as law and justice, regulation, and politics and business and health.

Panelists included Tufts’ Professor of Political Science David Art, Commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (MCCC) Shaleen Title, entrepreneur and marijuana advocate Aja Atwood, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Founder and Executive Director of the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls Andrea James, Founder of Integr8 Health and medical physician Dustin Sulak and MIT Research Scientist and Co-instructor of the ExCollege course De La Parra.

Moderated by Anemone, an ethnobotanist, attorney and co-instructor of the ExCollege course, the panel discussed policy, racial disparities in the enforcement of drug policies and the changing national attitudes toward marijuana.

“Today is not going to be about legalization versus prohibition because as a country we have kind of moved past that,” Anemone said. “Today we are going to be talking about what it actually means to legalize marijuana.”

The event was opened by Dean of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, who addressed changing attitudes toward marijuana.

“I would say this is a domain that has changed so very much over my lifetime,” Glaser said. “I remember as a teenager my mother warning me against the dangers of marijuana.”

Glaser added that his mother, who now uses cannabis lotion for arthritis, has changed her attitude toward marijuana.

Art weighed in on the topic during the discussion, saying public opinion and the national discussion of marijuana policy has shifted rapidly in under a decade.

“The change has been radical and quick and as quick as any change in American politics recently,” Art said. “In 2010, it was two-to-one against legalization; in 2018, it has flipped. In Massachusetts, the debate now is about social justice and reparations.”

Regarding the legalization and transition of marijuana sales from underground markets to a regulated market, Title said the process has been slow. As of Feb. 28, 49 registered marijuana dispensary applications have been approved for sales across the state. Title said the transition allows for a well-regulated market beneficial to all.

“For young people who choose to use cannabis … it’s better if it’s a regulated product that has been tested, that is labeled, that will give you a consistent experience,” Title said.

Entering the market, however, can be a difficult process for businesses, according to Atwood. Atwood said her locality only allows for one recreational license, and that upon applying, businesses must execute a Host Community Agreement (HCA). An HCA is an agreement between the business and the municipality regarding the business’s operations and fees.

Atwood said the process to secure an HCA put her in a “sort of limbo” between a “hesitant town” and the MCCC.

According to Atwood, more pathways should be opened for people to enter the business.

“A lot of the people trying to get into the industry are focusing on licenses,” Atwood said. “We need other things to be developed for this industry to thrive.”

Throughout the event, panelists reflected on the racial disparities of enforcing drug policy while also discussing the potential role of current and future marijuana policy in addressing those disparities. According to a 2016 report by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, 75% of those serving mandatory sentences for drug offenses are black or Latinx despite only being 22% of the state’s population. The enforcement of drug policy has left a deep impact on minority communities, according to James.

“We have to understand the disruption of the war on drugs and mass incarceration that has mostly targeted minority communities, in addition to the family disruption,” James, a formerly incarcerated woman, said. “I would hope that we would begin by [stopping the use of] people’s past histories as a reason to preclude them from moving forward.”

For Rollins, the communities most affected by the enforcement of marijuana policy should be the ones to benefit most from the growing industry.

“Now everyone making money in cannabis is white; so it is a racial disparity … If there is something that we as people of color should be making money on, it is the stuff that you arrested and prosecuted us for,” Rollins said.


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