Cannabis Journeys: Joe Gilmore and the Fight for Equity

Joe Gilmore was quick to agree to an interview. As founder and Chapter Leader of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at UMass Boston, and Community Outreach Director of Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC), he knows getting the word out about cannabis is most of his job. And like any good advocate, he had talking points. Nonetheless, his passion for the plant was clear.

“I really love the way cannabis allows me to be more productive, and I know it can help a lot of people. I figure if I’m going to be doing something for the rest of my life, I’d like it to be in the cannabis industry.”

His journey with cannabis started when he was fourteen. For a couple of summers, he went to California to visit family and friends. His cousin introduced him to cannabis.

“I was super against it at as a kid. My brother had gotten into a lot of trouble from smoking. But eventually, I did it, laughed a lot, ate a lot of food. I realized it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

The pivotal experience that made him an activist was in 2013 when he went to a medical cannabis school, and learned about the history of cannabis in the USA.

“I learned about the history of prohibition, the racist origins of the stigma. The whole ‘War on Drugs’ is based on profit and racism. That struck a chord with me and made me want to get involved.”

Gilmore’s mission now is to help shape the Massachusetts cannabis community into an equitable, transparent and safe space for everyone with a passion for the plant. He knows that people who created access to cannabis in our communities could be shut out of the legal market because they don’t have access to the thousands of dollars needed to open a dispensary or a grow, or because they have a drug conviction that will haunt them for years.

Growing up in Dorchester, MA, Gilmore knew many people who operated in the illicit cannabis market. People needed money and the work was easy to get. And, unlike opioids, nobody seemed to be dying from cannabis consumption. But because the plant was illegal, touching it left people vulnerable to arrest. He saw that vulnerability was stronger in black and brown communities where it was harder to find jobs that offered a living wage.

He also realized that drug traffickers were an asset, not a hindrance, to the legal industry because they have skills that easily transfer, especially in terms of cultivation, manufacturing, and production techniques. They also already have established relationships with clients and distributors, and understand the culture and trends that consumers enjoy.

Because of equity activism from folks like Joe, the message has been loud and clear. The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently decided to allow those found guilty of trafficking in marijuana to work in the new industry. (They will prohibit traffickers in hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine, from having direct contact with any cannabis product.) The criminal justice reform bill is still in development, and they are waiting to hear if lobbying efforts have been successful.

Despite the delays, Gilmore is upbeat. “Overall I do think the regulations are looking good. [Commissioner] Shaleen Title did an amazing job by incorporating exclusivity for equity applicants in micro businesses. So that’s an avenue for people to get in who don’t have a lot of cash. This is already happening in California.”

When looking at other legal states, he has been struck with the difference in stigma here in Massachusetts. “People think it’s a liberal state but it’s pretty conservative. I think when the tax revenue starts to come in and improve schools, fix potholes, people will start to realize this isn’t plutonium. It’s a plant."

Now that the final regulations are completed, the big focus for equity activists like Joe Gilmore will be on individual towns and cities passing local bylaws, ordinances, and zoning restrictions.

“Going forward it will be very important to be active on the local level, both to protect community interests and ensure that obtaining and operating a legal cannabis establishment is not unreasonably prohibitive. Please be a part of the process. There’s a place for everyone in this industry.”

About the author: Christine Giraud, a writer in Boston, has become fascinated with the cannabis industry, as well as the culture, politics and history around it.

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