Importance of Social Equity in Cannabis: ‘
As of this posting, 37 states have legalized marijuana medically. 19 of those 37 states have legalized marijuana both medically and recreationally, contributing to a highly expansive, multi-billion dollar industry. This industry is also paradoxal: the same substance you can purchase at participating dispensaries in legalized states, is the same substance that has imprisoned many for years, resulting in lifelong ramifications.
As the War on Marijuana prevailed, so too did its impact on minority communities. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released marijuana arrest analytics from 2001-2010 and their findings were staggering; “law enforcement made millions of marijuana arrests, the vast majority of which were for possession, and Black people were much more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession despite comparable usage rates.” A Black individual is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related offense, despite the concrugency in usage. In 2018, ACLU revisited these statistics and discovered an incredible 6.1 million arrests in relation to marijuana, despite being down 18% from 2010. In 2018 alone, there were more than 700,000 people taken into custody, accounting for 43% of all drug-related arrests. Geographically, most occurrences are in states where marijuana remains an illegal substance.
Despite the push for legalization and its eventual success in most states, racial disparities are still prevalent within the marijuana industry. “racial disparities persist in every state that has rolled back marijuana prohibition — and in some cases, disparities have worsened.” Such disparities in our industry have resulted in not just criminal convictions, but a semi-permanent stain on the individual’s record that can result in loss of job opportunities, federal funding, housing, immigration status, and more, particularly among the Latinx community. Data is limited on arrest analytics for Latinx communities as they are often miscategorized as part of the Black community. This is what information is currently available:
- Making up only 17% of the United States population, 50% of federal drug-related cases are brought against Latinx people.
- Marijuana related offenses are #4 on the cause-list for deportation. Minor drug infractions can also lead to inadmissibility for non-resident citizens; this can also be permanent.
- Although the Latinx community is continually bastardized by a prejudice system, there is insufficient data referencing it, and even less acknowledging it. Some states do not reference Latinx people at all in their criminal justice reporting; it’s impossible currently, to know how many are incarcerated or on parole. According to the Urban Institute, “A state’s failure to collect and report ethnicity data affects not only Latinos but the entire criminal justice system. States that only count people as “black” or “white” likely label most of their Latino prison population “white,” artificially inflating the number of “white” people in prison and masking the white/black disparity in the criminal justice system.”
The importance of social equity in the cannabis industry cannot go understated. The cannabis industry has experienced incredible growth and profit and it’s imperative we generate those profits back into the communities most affected, and allow them the chance to grow within the industry. Illinois, a state who set the precedent for social equity within the industry, has failed to meet its expectations. Out of the 19 states that have legalized marijuana recreationally, only 13 have some form of social equity programs available. How are these programs benefiting the marginalized communities? Well, let’s dissect it and analyze:
At the pillar of legalization, Illinois became the first state to implement the Regulation and Tax Act which offered minority applicants additional application and financial benefits. Nearly 3 years since its enactment, licensees are unable to utilize their acquired licensure due to complications spiraling from court litigation. Growers and transporters are struggling to scale their business models to be equitable to their competitors.
In the state of New Jersey, 13 dispensaries are currently open and operating to sale, however none of these businesses are owned by minority operators. Each dispensary is currently being run by larger, nationalized companies (like Curaleaf) which is allowing “big cannabis” to capitalize on what’s expected to be a profitable year; this directly contradicts the purpose and intended outcome of social equity programs in this industry. While the state did issue an additional 34 licenses in April of 2022, it’s still in the process of developing a supply-chain system that can effectively manage it.
On May 26th, the Department of Cannabis Regulation in Los Angeles will open their verification period for social equity applicants. There are many prior and in-process applicants who feel that the programs initially put in place by the California state government are creating additional roadblocks, not minimizing them. Due to property litigation and limbo, several applicants had to either purchase or rent property for several months without being able to access the facilities for their intended purpose- this has caused financial ruin for some people. In December of 2020, a report was generated by state lawmakers that showed only 203 licenses were awarded to social equity applicants, and a staggering 2,355 were issued to non-minorities; the disparity is in the literal data.
Last week, Michigan launched a new social equity program petitioned to incentivize licensees to be more proactive in diversification, equity, and inclusion. This program is broken into tier levels. As companies meet the qualifiers for each tier, the Cannabis Regulatory Agency (CRA) implements certain acknowledgements based on the companies’ efforts to promote equity within the industry. While this policy is new and has yet to make its impact on its community, a looming question remains: is it enough?
Current Complications and Potential Resolutions:
A shared sentiment across those involved in social equity policy is that access to funding is pivotal, and a primary need for a multitude of programs nationwide. Cannabis education is also a top priority; fueling and funneling a heavily biased and slandered industry with reputable knowledge backed by case studies, is crucial in ending the stigma surrounding it. Some social equity programs that do offer funding have been known to delay its transfer, or the non-issuance of funding altogether.
States that have legalized marijuana recreationally have a low cap on the number of licenses they’ll issue for operation; this narrows opportunities for marginalized groups exponentially. In last week’s blog post Social Equity in Cannabis we discussed North Carolina’s SB 711 and how it impacts its local communities. With issuance of business licenses capped at 10, the nearly 2,000 registered farmers and suppliers in the state will be out of the running in particulating such a lucrative industry; this doesn’t even cover social equity provisions. Lawmakers need to expand the licensure cap and allow the operational pool to diversify.
Most social equity programs are inclusive of individuals with previous marijuana convictions, but some applicants are still challenged by their record; this is something lawmakers need to be especially cognizant of during the applicant process. Social equity programs were designed for just this purpose; their role is to provide opportunity to those disproportionality affected by marijuana prohibition.
Social Equity in Cannabis: We Need to Keep Going
Marijuana legalization is growing rapidly within our country. By the end of this year, it’s projected to contribute $99 billion into the United States economy; there is financial abundance and opportunity to ensure that those most affected by marijuana prohibition and criminalization have a fair chance of participating in this industry. This is why social equity programs are imperative- lawmakers need to implement better analytical tools to effectively monitor the program’s level of impact. While some policies remain ineffective, it’s important to keep in mind that this is exactly the reason why they need to keep going – they need to be revisited, restructured, and re-established for the benefit of the people they were created for. In the final part in this series, we’re going to speak on social equity from the perspective of policy holders and advocates. We’ll also discuss how the everyday individual/concerned consumer can take part in promoting equity within the industry.
- About the program. About the Program | Cannabis Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://cannabis.lacity.org/social-equity-program/about-program/about-program
- Cannabis Regulatory Agency announces New Social Equity All-Star Program. SOM – State of Michigan. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.michigan.gov/lara/news-releases/2022/05/10/cannabis-regulatory-agency-announces-new-social-equity-all-star-program
- Report: The war on marijuana in black and white. American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/report/report-war-marijuana-black-and-white
- Social Equity in cannabis. Social Equity In Cannabis. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.nj.gov/cannabis/resources/faqs/social-equity/
- Update on Illinois Cannabis Social Equity Program. The Civic Federation. (2022, April 1). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.civicfed.org/blog/update-illinois-cannabis-social-equity-program-0