Neighborhoods of color need more than weed shops

The look of incredulity on Cheryl Straughter’s face told me everything I needed to know. I asked her, daughter of Minister Don Muhammad, if she found it more than a little ironic that the site of her father’s former business, New Life Health Store and Nova Sheen on Blue Hill Ave., one of the longest-standing, Black-owned businesses in the community was the proposed location of a marijuana warehouse and courier service. It would sit across the street from Pure Oasis, a recreational cannabis dispensary.

The irony gets deeper when you realize that minister Don Muhammad and the Nation of Islam have been a powerful force in fighting rampant drug use, particularly in Grove Hall, and also have a long history of helping our people take back the lives of those lost to substance abuse.

As have the other powerful activist ministers who have joined forces with the Nation like the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, Bishop William Dickerson, and the Rev. Gregory Groover, to name a few.

They understand the new reality of legalized marijuana and the big money investment opportunities it affords. And while that’s not a bad thing, it’s become a veritable gold rush in one area of the city — one in which Black and brown communities who once bore the brunt of harsh penalties for marijuana possession can now get to own and operate a part of a lucrative multibillion-dollar business. They do, however, still struggle to get to first base in this new and expensive industry.

The ministers, however, take issue with the proliferation of marijuana sites throughout these communities. If the marijuana warehouse gets the green light, Grove Hall would have two cannabis businesses with barely a block between them. So would Dorchester’s Codman Square.

Unfortunately, other economic development opportunities have long been stalled or remain elusive in Black and other neighborhoods of color.

There are far too many empty storefronts that dot the landscape throughout Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and East Boston. But siting multiple marijuana shops alone throughout those neighborhoods cannot be the only answer.

Minority entrepreneurs should definitely be in the mix to take advantage of multibillion-dollar marijuana enterprises. But there has to be a way to balance making money and seizing opportunity with resisting the potential of further exploitation of inner city neighborhoods still fighting to overcome the ravages of drug abuse.

About a year or so ago I wrote a column that predicted that multiple marijuana sitings on every block could happen in these neighborhoods. And here we are.

It is a sin and a shame that we cannot diversify the implementation of other avenues of economic vitality for our communities. It’s a sad commentary that we can OK storefronts and other empty spaces for weed shops but we can’t get our kids the promised youth center in Grove Hall.

Clearly something needs to be done about elastic zoning laws that allow variances at a snap — too often justified by the argument that the ballot question was overwhelmingly approved  in communities of color. That should not be an excuse.

I mean, who among you, especially members of communities hard hit by past legal penalties for marijuana possession, no matter how small, wouldn’t vote positively for any opportunity to change course and make money from marijuana legally?

But ask yourself, should our business districts be dominated by weed shops in competition with each other like Starbucks, with everyone making money but the neighborhoods who need it most?

No other neighborhood in the city would tolerate that. And most aren’t. There has to be a way for folks to earn a living without communities being swallowed up that are still burdened by the crush of drugs.

There needs to be a better plan that takes into consideration a community’s overall economic status and the lingering challenges brought about by the ongoing war on drugs.

Joyce Ferriabough Bolling is a media and political strategist and communications specialist.

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