lthough it might not be obvious at first, not all local cannabis dispensaries are created equal. Some are owned by out-of-state corporations, meaning that most of the profits they generate leave the community. Others like Green Soul Organics, which is set to open two locations over the next few months, are owned by local people and are invested in improving the lives of their neighbors and families.
Lifelong friends and Cambridge residents Richard Harding and Tabasuri Moses founded Green Soul Organics and its nonprofit counterpart, Green Soul Foundation, in 2018, with a dual goal: establish a profitable adult-use cannabis business that will provide jobs and boost the local economy, and offer job training and educational opportunities to local people who want to work in the industry. “We have an opportunity to create wealth pathways in our community that have not historically existed,” Harding says. “We are working to pursue a dream in the cannabis industry that reflects our values and who we are.”
Harding and Moses both grew up in public housing, and both are African-American. This is central to who they are and how they will operate the business. As Harding, a public health professional who served seven terms on the Cambridge School Committee, points out, “Cambridge is home to two of the most prestigious universities in the world, but poverty and lack of education are still a big problem here.” The business partners applied for and received Economic Empowerment Priority status, a Massachusetts program that ensures people living in communities disproportionally affected by the biased enforcement of drug laws are able to benefit financially from the legalized cannabis industry.
Although the state program was created to make opening a cannabis-based business easier for people like Harding and Moses, of the more than 120 applicants that have received Economic Empowerment Priority status, none have actually started a business. “There are still so many barriers to success,” Harding says. “The process [of opening a cannabis business] is long, arduous, and complex, and if you don’t have adequate funding you are going to run into trouble before you even get started. Because cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, you can’t just walk into a bank and apply for a loan.”
Among the obstacles Harding and Moses have had to overcome is a Massachusetts provision allowing formerly nonprofit medical-use-only dispensaries that were in place prior to 2018, when recreational cannabis sales were allowed to begin in the state, to expand their businesses to include for-profit adult-use sales. “Cambridge only has eight adult-use licenses,” Harding says. “Five pre-existing businesses were allowed to go vertical, leaving only three licenses for everyone else. It was unfair because none of them had to do everything from scratch like we did.”
In 2019, Harding and Moses helped fight for, and eventually win, a two-year moratorium on pre-existing medical-use cannabis dispensaries expanding to adult-use in Cambridge. The city ruling will allow time for Economic Empowerment entrepreneurs to navigate complicated licensing processes and meet state and city requirements. Although the effort caused a delay in the process of opening Green Soul Organics’ doors, Harding says it was worth it. “We wanted people behind us to have an opportunity, and to make sure it wasn’t just about us.”
Green Soul also has had to contend with COVID-19 setbacks when quarantine requirements and government office closings delayed their licensing hearings for months. And although the Green Soul Foundation supported the community through food drives and by giving out protective facemasks at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, the nonprofit has had to press pause on in-person mentorship programs and workshops at the foundation’s Kendall Square classroom. “[Jobs in the cannabis industry require] such a hands-on learning process,” Harding says. “We didn’t think it would translate well to online education.”
With restrictions lifting now, things are looking up for Green Soul. Harding and Moses will open recreational-use dispensaries this summer (target opening date in early August) in Cambridge’s Central Square and in Somerville at the location of legendary former music club Johnny D’s. The duo hopes to secure a host community agreement for a third location, and they are working on establishing a cannabis cultivation facility in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which Harding and Moses hope to have up and running by next year.
For other Economic Empowerment candidates looking to open cannabis-based businesses, Harding has some advice: “Make sure you fully understand local and state regulations so you aren’t making costly mistakes,” he says. “Figure out how to access capital. You need money to play in the space. Be wary of landlords.” Many are now getting predatory and jacking up the rent on cannabis businesses. Legal representation, which you will need, is expensive, too. “There have been times I’ve felt like the lawyers were the only ones winning,” he says, “but we will persevere.”