Social Equity Conversation Needs to Expand: Panel

By Willis Jacobson
Nov 20, 2020
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Cannabis regulators nationwide have paid more attention to social equity programs in recent years. But the general consensus among those in and around the industry is the initiatives have largely fallen short of their goals of righting some of the wrongs of the War on Drugs.

It’s time for a reimagining of the concept, particularly as more states are poised to join the legalization movement, said a panel of advocates, operators and lawmakers.

The negative effects of the War on Drugs, particularly on communities of color, continue to permeate across society, according to the panelists, who convened this week for an industry forum presented by data firm Prohibition Partners. The panelists suggested myriad ways to address those inequities – which include disproportionate arrest rates and lack of access to capital, among others – but noted that progress will require meaningful conversation between operators, policymakers, advocates and the people whose communities remain under attack.

Karim Webb, an entrepreneurial activist and CEO of 4thMVMT, a Los Angeles-based firm that aims to help build cannabis businesses in communities impacted by institutional racism, noted that Black and brown people account for roughly 80% of cannabis-related arrests nationwide, despite studies showing that they consume at the same rate as white people. He compared that to the fact that Black and brown people make up less than 1% of legal cannabis licensees.

“We’re perpetuating inequity that has existed in this country since its foundation, and this is an opportunity … to ensure that at least in the cannabis space that we have some semblance of fairness moving forward, before this train is all the way out of the station,” he said.

Beyond business

The industry’s direction on social equity could have ramifications well beyond business operations.

Many government social equity programs and proposals include elements that call for criminal justice reforms, as well as expungement of prior cannabis-related convictions. These policies can dramatically impact lives. Just ask Michael Thompson.

Thompson, now 69, was convicted in his native Michigan in 1994 for selling three pounds of marijuana to an undercover police informant. He was sentenced to 42 to 62 years, as previous drug convictions were taken into account.

Thompson remains in prison, but was granted a hearing in front of the Michigan Parole Board this week.

Natalie Papillion, a drug reform advocate who sits on the board of directors for the Last Prisoner Project, noted that it took a year for the Last Prisoner Project to get that parole hearing on the calendar. She said Thompson, who has no violent crimes on his record, would have greatly benefited from more careful consideration of justice reform as Michigan established its REC market.

Instead, Thompson remains likely to serve out his life in prison, while business owners are now making millions of dollars selling marijuana in Michigan. Papillion blamed Thomson’s situation on the “bureaucratic mire that is our criminal legal system,” as well as regulators for not including retroactive relief in the state’s REC laws.

“And I also think it’s a broader philosophical issue,” she said. “Americans are a very punitive population, just writ large, and the criminal legal system tends to go in one direction: Tougher sentences, more things criminalized. I think we really have to reckon with this impulse, across all parts of the political spectrum.”

Papillion noted that cannabis convictions can have far-reaching consequences. People in federally-assisted housing, such as Section 8, can be kicked out of their homes for using cannabis. People can also lose custody of their children, as family courts across the country consider cannabis use and convictions when adjudicating cases.

Stacey Walker, a Democratic supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, who served as a member of a criminal justice task force headed by then-Vice President Joe Biden, characterized the War on Drugs as an “assault on Black and brown communities” and said it will take cooperation from both political parties to right some of those wrongs.

He pointed to the 1994 Crime Bill, signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, as another example of that assault. The bill, among other things, introduced the “three strikes” provision and is credited with ushering in massive incarceration, particularly among people from communities of color.

“Even as a Democrat, I have to say Democrats have a lot to atone for,” Walker said. “The crime bill in the 90s didn’t happen because one party thought it was a good idea. We had folks on both sides of the aisle come together to really criminalize Black and brown communities, in a way, and extend the War on Drugs and, in some respects, put it on steroids.”

Expanding the discussion

In order to ensure that social equity programs benefit society and the industry, regulators should define exactly what they want out of their programs and invite as many stakeholders to the discussion as possible, said Webb, with 4thMVMT.

He pointed to municipalities that attempted “well-intentioned” programs – like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago – but noted that those cities haven’t seen the results they would’ve liked. 

Los Angeles made several major changes to its social equity program this summer as part of a lawsuit settlement, but several more lawsuits are pending against the city’s regulators over various provisions. San Francisco and Chicago, among other cities, have also been the target of litigation and/or widespread criticism surrounding social equity regulations.

By setting defined goals, Webb suggested, municipalities will be able to measure the success of their programs. Success can mean different things in different places, he said.

Some measurables Webb pointed to for gauging equity, in general, include health outcomes, educational attainment and wealth creation.

He suggested that operators within the cannabis industry, particularly multi-state operators, take a lead in ensuring those pillars align with cannabis policy. That could entail not only working to increase licensure among minority or disadvantaged applicants, but providing resources – such as access to capital – to ensure those businesses can succeed.

“It’s one thing to get the license, but a lot of the [social equity] licenses that have been administered … are going to become distressed assets because people don’t have the capital to stand those businesses up and compete,” he said.

Walker, the Iowa politician and activist, stressed the importance of including people from impacted communities in those policy discussions.

“We may not get it perfect on the first attempt [or] the second attempt, but we’re going to come closer to getting it right if [we] have the right people at the table,” he said.

Khadijah Tribble, the vice president of corporate social responsibility for MSO Curaleaf, called on her fellow panelists and others interested in reform to join together and develop a list of actionable items that they can then take to legislators as a unified front.

Voters in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota each legalized REC on Election Day, and legislators in those states are currently tasked with establishing regulations.

Each state that adopts REC legalization, Tribble said, provides a new opportunity for change.

“The urgency is now,” she said.

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