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story.lead_photo.caption A visitor examines a marijuana sample at the New England Cannabis Convention on March 25, 2018, in Boston. Real Action for Cannabis Equity, which launched Thursday, says the coalition will work to create more opportunities in the industry for minority owners. Photo by Associated Press / Texarkana Gazette.

BOSTON — Black entrepreneurs who say people of color are being shut out of the lucrative marijuana trade are joining forces to close the gap.

Real Action for Cannabis Equity, or RACE, launched Thursday in Boston, and its founders said the coalition will work to create more opportunities in the industry for minority owners.

Organizers said they're frustrated that all but two of Massachusetts' 184 marijuana business licenses have been issued to white operators. Voters in the state approved recreational marijuana use and sales in a 2016 referendum.

Across the U.S., black people have had difficulty entering the marijuana trade, often because they historically were targeted by anti-drug crackdowns that left them with criminal records.

In Massachusetts, black people were 3.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 — two years before legalization — despite using the drug at similar rates, RACE said in a statement.

Many communities are using those convictions to deliberately exclude people of color as they license marijuana businesses, said coalition co-founder Richard Harding.

"On the municipal level, this is not unlike the Jim Crow laws or civil rights struggles of the past, whereby higher-level mandates for equity are being intentionally or irresponsibly ignored on the local level," Harding said.

RACE said discrimination persists even though the Massachusetts ballot initiative included mandates aimed at promoting equity for people of color who were disproportionately prosecuted, criminalized and incarcerated during marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs.

"Statewide, the voters have clearly called for legalization to be carried forth in a manner that promotes equity, but on the municipal level, from Brockton to Cambridge to Western Massachusetts, equity is being sabotaged," Harding said. "Fairness is not being achieved in the process, and it is certainly not being achieved in the result."

The coalition said it will promote the interests of entrepreneurs and workers of color as they seek equal access to the marijuana business, starting with a voter outreach campaign aimed at raising awareness of the racial and ethnic gap. The campaign will include ads on Facebook, YouTube and other platforms, it said.

RACE planned to hold a silent demonstration Friday afternoon outside Cambridge city hall.

Messages were left seeking comment from city officials.

The state's Cannabis Control Commission, which regulates the industry in Massachusetts, told The Associated Press it's committed to an industry "which includes full participation from people of color."

"The commission will continue to collaborate with municipalities, other state agencies and the private sector to ensure Massachusetts' industry looks like Massachusetts," it said.

Nationwide, cities and states have been taking steps to encourage minorities to enter the growing cannabis industry and remove legal obstacles. Most of the measures are aimed at ensuring people with past marijuana convictions aren't excluded from applying for a retail license or working in a cannabis business.

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