GREAT BARRINGTON — Marijuana dispensary Theory Wellness is offering up to $250,000 — and a lot of guidance — to a disadvantaged person or team seeking to open a cannabis retail shop in Massachusetts.
Theory CEO Brandon Pollock, who announced the company's equity sponsorship program Wednesday, said it is designed to provide a leg up to someone who had been harmed by the war on drugs.
And that, he said, fills a void that the state has failed to adequately address.
"We wanted to do something that was impactful," Pollock said, noting the lack of participation in the marijuana industry by that segment of the population.
"There are seminars, workshops, things like that, that get a little information out to a lot of people, but we wanted to do it a little different," he said. "Let's choose one person or team and really get them across the finish line."
People from across the state will be able to apply for Theory's program in the coming weeks, Pollock said.
Eligible applicants already will have been certified as an "economic empowerment" applicant by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, which created a program meant to help people who have been disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for cannabis-related crimes.
When Massachusetts drafted regulations after the 2016 ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, it created a fast track for disadvantaged people to win licenses. The state certified at least 200 people and businesses as potential "economic empowerment" applicants, but due to high startup costs, only about 40 applications for recreational licenses have been filed through the program, according to the commission.
Theory Wellness is a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Great Barrington, as well as a cultivation site, medical dispensary and manufacturing site in Bridgewater. The company has a provisional license to grow marijuana outdoors in Sheffield, and has submitted an application to open a retail shop in Chicopee.
"There's been a lot of publicity about equity and cannabis, and how the folks harmed by the war on drugs are not participating in the industry — a lot of it is out-of-state firms just owned by venture capitalists or private equity firms," Pollock told The Eagle.
Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council, said he expects there to be interest in Theory's sponsorship. There doesn't seem to be anything else like it in the state.
"The state should be doing this, in my humble opinion. There's supposed to be a social equity program that offers that sort of assistance," Bernard said. "Of course, the state probably won't set that up until after all the big money has taken their space. It looks like Theory is looking for one candidate, but one is better than none."
The Cannabis Control Commission has begun the long process of revamping its equity program after growing public criticism. On Wednesday, the commission unveiled a rough work plan for improving economic empowerment by investigating a zero-interest loan program, improving its website and waiving some requirements for eligible applicants among other upgrades. Some of these conversations won't take place until the fall.
What makes Theory's sponsorship program unique is that the company is not requiring the winning applicant to give Theory a stake in the company or sign a contract requiring the purchase of product or services from Theory. It's also helping to create a competing business.
"Technically, it is what we're doing," Pollock said of starting a competing marijuana retailer, "but it's a big state and there are a lot of customers out there."
The three main prongs of the program are help with financing, regulations and connecting with professional services.
The winning applicant will receive a commitment of up to $250,000 from the company, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of zero-interest debt financing and $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment. Regulatory consulting will be provided at the local and state level, and it includes securing real estate and acquiring a host community agreement from municipal officials.
Pollock said Theory also will connect the winning applicant with service providers that can be difficult for people in the marijuana industry to locate because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. These services include banking, insurance, legal assistance and human resources.
Pollock said he does not know how long it will take Theory to select a winner; the timeline will depend on how many applicants the company receives.
"If we're lucky enough to get 100 applications, then it'll take a while," he said.
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini.