The partners behind Yamba Market, a new adult use cannabis store in Cambridge, Mass., believe the setbacks they’ve experienced illustrate the difficulties equity applicants face in the state.
“The margins are very narrow,” said Sean Hope. “When you have multiple years of expenses and losses, getting out of the red is the first hurdle. There is a reality that no one forced us to go into this business, but I realize that we’re in a better position than a lot of other people.”
Partners Sieh Samura and Hope are on the verge of opening Yamba Market, an adult use store that also contains an art and community space, in Cambridge. They will be the first to officially take advantage of the city’s moratorium on adult use cannabis licenses for non-social equity applicants, which survived a legal challenge last year.
There were 1,420 total applicants, as of Feb. 10, for cannabis licenses, from pending applications to commence operation orders. Of those, only 200 or 17.1% were from social equity applicants.
Meanwhile, Black and Latino people only make up a little more than 3% of all business owners in the state, according to recent census data. That figure excludes the self-employed, who only bring that number up to 9% when included. Meanwhile the two demographics make up more than 20% of the state’s population.
Sean Hope is a multi-generational resident of Cambridge, with a professional background in real estate development and real estate law. He got involved in the cannabis industry when he assisted Sira Naturals in opening a medical cannabis dispensary in Cambridge in 2017.
Samura, along with his wife Leah Samura, parlayed their experience in activism while creating access to cannabis for medical patients into a cannabis manufacturing business through Sira Naturals’ incubator program.
“My instincts were that this was also going to be a land game. Meaning, you can have a permit, but it’s all about locations,” said Hope.
Yamba Market, which received its final license from the state during the Feb. 10 meeting of the Cannabis Control Commission, will move into the former site of community grocery store Harvest Co-op. The property had been vacant for years before Hope and Samura secured their interest in it in 2019.
At the time, fear over the federal legality of cannabis made it difficult to find a storefront for rent, according to Hope.
“Three years ago landlords were scared that the federal governor wouldn’t seize the business, they would take all the cash and the building itself, because there really wasn’t any guidance on this stuff,” he said.
The fact that Samura has a reputation built on his activism can also undermine how regulators or business partners perceive him.
“With my activist background. It’s easy for people to think that I don’t have any business sense,” he said. “Or there has got to be some smart money entity behind this guy, he’s not capable. Obviously with these Black guys, there’s some white power behind them.”
The partners may be paving the way for future social equity applicants in cannabis, but it may be a lonely road considering the ongoing difficulties applicants face in accessing cash.
“I’m very concerned,” said Hope. “I am very fortunate that Cambridge has been a place where real estate has appreciated so that the investments my grandparents made are bearing fruit.”
Without the establishment of a social equity fund or some other method to create access to capital, Samura and Hope said that they were worried that other social equity applicants would struggle to get off the ground.
“We can do this primarily self-funded. Without access, we could never do this.” said Hope. “We were paying rent for years without even a license. That was a major investment. How are other equity applicants going to do that? They’re not going to.”