Jesse Pitts’ first brush with business ownership was up-selling penny candy in grade school. When the school got word, it banned his means of income, and instead, set up its own candy store.
Candy turned into marijuana by the eighth grade, and Pitts continued selling it while attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he studied astronomy. The cash flow allowed the Wareham native to keep up with his friends socially, he said, and from there, it “ballooned” to selling large quantities.
In 2007, Pitts was arrested when more than 70 pounds of marijuana and a quarter of a million in cash were seized from the home he was renting. He subsequently spent nine months in prison, followed by a stint with an ankle monitor, 500 hours of community service and five years probation.
“Everything I went through, there was a reason for it,” said Pitts. “It’s easy now to say that. Then, damn near impossible.”
Pitts speaks today from his position as co-founder of Wareham marijuana company Trade Roots, the first Social Equity Program participant in the state to become a triple licensee – obtaining licensure for retail sales, cultivation and manufacturing, as confirmed by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
“We are on cloud nine, as you can imagine,” said Pitts’ business partner Carl Giannone.
Massachusetts marijuana licensing process
To sell or grow marijuana in Massachusetts, companies must go through robust and lengthy processes with the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. Prospective businesses have to establish host community agreements, submit detailed applications and undergo inspections before a chance of opening is even on the horizon.
In the case of Trade Roots, the Wareham company did all of those things for three separate licenses – in order to sell and grow marijuana, as well as manufacture products.
While a small handful of Social Equity Program participants have opened in Massachusetts, Trade Roots is the only one that has been granted all three licenses thus far.
Many non-equity oriented cannabis businesses have been approved for three licenses, according to the CCC’s list of applicants and license statuses.
What is the Massachusetts marijuana Social Equity Program?
Massachusetts was the first state in the country to mandate that equity be part of the framework for its legal marijuana market. The state’s Social Equity Program offers free training and technical assistance to prospective businesses run by individuals disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, while a certified economic empowerment status gives priority licensing review to qualifying applicants.
The equity programs seek to break down barriers for people of color, women, veterans and those with marijuana criminal convictions to enter the industry.
And yet, the numbers show the Bay State’s cannabis industry is still turning out to be largely white and male. Advocates are pushing for the state to put its money where its mouth is, they say, by creating a social equity fund to provide individuals with capital and low-interest loans or grants.
As Massachusetts’ adult-use marijuana sales pass $2.6 billion – the excise tax benefits recently outranking that of alcohol – many industry professionals are worried equity-oriented businesses could fall further behind if money isn’t allocated towards ensuring a diverse sector, and one that’s committed to restorative justice.
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As of November 2021, CCC Director of Government Affairs and Policy Matt Giancola said out of more than 1,000 applications submitted to the CCC, just 232 were from Social Equity Program participants or economic empowerment applicants.
CCC numbers as of August 2021 showed of 104 Social Equity Program participant licenses, including final licenses, seven had opened.
‘Validation and vindication’
Pitts qualified for the Social Equity Program because of his prior marijuana conviction. Of Trade Roots’ recent licensing accomplishment, he feels “validation and vindication,” he said.
It wasn’t long ago he tried to dip his foot into the medical marijuana industry, only to be told he couldn’t participate because of his criminal record.
Despite being a billion dollar market, the marijuana industry in Massachusetts still faces hurdles
“I served time for this, and (I was) being told I can’t partake in this industry because I partook in this industry,” Pitts said with a laugh.
He commends the state for its equity efforts thus far, adding, “Is there work to be done? Of course.”
He was happy to see an improvement in the licensing process when he recently submitted an application under a different LLC for a marijuana delivery license. “I feel like they fixed some of the things that were hurdles in the beginning. They’re trying to resolve some of those.”
Pitts added, “There’s a lot of sharks, a learning curve, and a lot of bumps on the chin.”
Trade Roots’ plans for Wareham location as opening nears
Pitts and Giannone’s original vision for Trade Roots was “a craft cannabis company at the gateway to Cape Cod” – and that still rings true today.
What customers can expect when they enter the Wareham store is an experience, the business partners said, with an interactive element and “open-kitchen feel.”
“Like when you’re at a restaurant and the chef comes out and shakes your hand,” Pitts said.
Pitts and Giannone originally met in 2017 while traveling out west. To start Trade Roots with Pitts, Giannone moved to Massachusetts from New York City with his girlfriend, a chef who plans to open a dumpling truck that’ll serve fare at the marijuana shop.
“I want this to be fun,” Giannone said. “We’ve hired a great team, some with traditional cannabis retail experience and some with traditional retail experience, to create something the customers just want to come to.”
Giannone said an opening date is dependent on their final license inspection, but he’d like to be open by Valentine’s Day.
“Sometime in February is safe to say.”