Western Massachusetts has room to thrive thanks to streamlined cannabis policies.

The State’s Great Green Hope

Story Emilie-Noelle Provost

For decades, Central and Western Massachusetts have lagged behind the eastern part of the state in economic growth and job creation. Once-booming manufacturing towns like Holyoke and Fitchburg never recovered after factory owners pulled up stakes to seek cheaper labor in the South in the 20th century, and they’ve struggled with joblessness, poverty, and the crime and illicit drug activity that inevitably follow. Fitchburg has a median income of about $50,000, and Holyoke’s is just under $38,000. More than 28 percent of Holyoke’s population lives below the federal poverty line.

When medical-use cannabis was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012, regulatory issues and resident opposition in several Massachusetts cities and towns kept cannabis businesses out. Economically depressed communities have wholeheartedly embraced the cannabis industry’s potential to create jobs and generate economic growth. Government officials in Fitchburg and Holyoke saw an opportunity to bring the shuttered mills lining their rivers back to life, bring in much-needed tax revenue, and promote ancillary businesses, such as specialized construction firms that could repurpose vacant manufacturing space to meet the unique needs of cannabis cultivators.

To grease the wheels, both cities streamlined their host-community agreement (HCA) processes, required by state law before companies can apply for operating licenses, making it faster, easier, and less expensive for cannabis companies to set up shop. The cities’ mayors and state reps took their cases to the media, local chambers of commerce, and cannabis companies themselves, plugging their communities’ relatively low real estate prices, willing work force, and thousands of square feet of available industrial space. 

In 2014, Somerville-based Revolutionary Clinics established a 140,000-square-foot medical-use cultivating operation in a former shoe factory in Fitchburg. According to the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, the repurposed facility, which now operates in the adult-use space as well, had created 108 new jobs, paid more than $700,000 in taxes, and donated more than $25,000 to local charities and community organizations as of November 2019. Twenty-three companies had applied to the state Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to operate adult-use businesses in Fitchburg, opening the door to cultivation facilities, testing laboratories, and retailers. Some of these companies have purchased and renovated other vacant buildings.

In August 2016, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse became the first Massachusetts mayor to call for legalization of cannabis for all adults in the state. He’s been a fierce proponent for the industry, and his efforts are paying off. Morse estimates that the city has 1.5 million square feet of vacant industrial space waiting to be developed.

As of November 2019, 24 recreational-use cannabis businesses had applied to the CCC for licenses to operate in Holyoke. 

In 2018, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), one of the nation’s largest medical-use cannabis providers, with headquarters in Chicago and 12 cultivation centers nationwide, spent $8 million to turn one of Holyoke’s historic 19th-century paper mills into a state-of-the-art growing facility. The company spent another $1 million to build a dispensary in Holyoke. According to its HCA with the city, GTI pays between $50,000 and $100,000 into Holyoke’s municipal fund and $15,000 in grants to community groups annually. 

A Cannabis Workforce

Employers like GTI and Revolutionary Clinics need laborers, chemists, horticulturists, processing and extraction technicians, packaging and shipping staff, customer service reps, and construction and maintenance workers. To fill those needs, colleges are offering cannabis industry job-training programs.

Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) in Worcester, a nonprofit engaged in cannabis-related health research and social justice issues, partnered with Holyoke Community College (HCC) in 2019 to create the Cannabis Education Center for Entrepreneur and Workforce Training. “Within two years, 300 to 400 skilled employees will be needed in Holyoke,” says Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of business and community services at HCC’s Center for Business and Professional Development. “As a community college, the core of our mission is to figure out how to deal with things that block people from employment.” 

HCC’s Cannabis Education Center offers training in four separate tracks, aimed mainly at the CCC’s Social Equity Program (SEP) participants, individuals who have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition as determined by several criteria, including prior incarceration and living in one of the 29 Massachusetts communities designated as “areas of disproportionate impact.” Holyoke and Fitchburg are among these 29 communities.

The Cannabis Education Center’s educational tracks include entrepreneurial skills training, managerial training, entry-level job training for people reentering society after incarceration or with fewer than two years of work experience, and ancillary training for students with existing transferrable skills. Participants are required to complete 46 hours of instruction.

HCC manages the Cannabis Education Center’s business education programs, but because cannabis is not allowed on HCC’s campus, C3RN has partnered with area cannabis businesses to create hands-on learning opportunities for students interested in cultivation, extraction, culinary arts, and dispensary customer service.

The Cannabis Education Center also works to help industry representatives understand how they can take advantage of this newly trained workforce and working with local cannabis businesses to establish a scholarship fund.

Cannabis training programs have been established at other central Massachusetts colleges as well. Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner offers a yearlong online program culminating in a master certification, and Clark University in Worcester offers an online Certificate in Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control. 

“We expect that there is going to be an explosion in jobs,” says C3RN CEO Marion McNabb. “Right now we have the opportunity to create a diverse industry where anyone who wants to work in it can. This can mean less crime and higher property values, but without a trained workforce, people from other states who are trained will come in, and nothing will change.” 

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