Since Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize marijuana for adult use in 2010, activists from all walks of the movement have continued to advocate for policies, measures, and initiatives that adequately address the needs of Black and Brown communities, who have been the most affected by the ongoing War on Drugs.
In 2012, social equity (or equity) was not a driving force or a major component in many of the first cannabis legalization bills. It would take almost a decade for advocates from non-legalized states to build enough momentum and networks to create policies that place equity as a priority before they could move forward with legalization.
The idea of legalizing cannabis to address the War on Drugs was not embraced by early proponents. There are a number of equity initiatives which have placed some cities and states on radar. This has attracted a lot of support, but not much.
This patchwork of cannabis legalizers, from Oakland to Massachusetts to Illinois to Oklahoma, gives them the opportunity to examine, revise and envision how cannabis legalization might make a more meaningful impact on communities that continue to be under-resourced, undervalued and legacy operators, who are now being forced further underground by large multi-state players from out of town taking up the new legal opportunities.
Here are some do’s and don’ts for anyone trying to understand the long-lasting effects of cannabis legalization right here in their backyard.
1. Make a report on the impact and disparities of your work
It is no longer a question of whether adult-use legalization in the United States will be the norm, but when. We see a pattern in many cases of decriminalization and legalization of medical marijuana, followed by adult-use legalization. Until recently, state and municipal studies were often left out of this trend. These studies clarify, recommend and help to ensure that legalization is best implemented before any bill is signed. Before any regulatory agency is established and before any licenses are issued for legal operations.
When looking for examples of how communities can create these reports before legalization, two options come to mind: Oakland’s Medical Marijuana Equity Analysis and Virginia’s Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization. In Oakland’s instance, the city council held city hall meetings in May 2016. The public was invited to provide input and revise the publication of a race- and equity analysis of the regulations for medical cannabis before legalization. It was intended to reduce the disparities in medical cannabis and equalize the playing field for operators from communities or backgrounds that were directly affected by the War on Drugs.
This result enabled a one-to-1 match, which allowed half of all medical dispensary licences to be reserved for equity applicants for each license granted in the city. Investors could also be given priority for general licenses if they partner with equity applicants. This was done to reduce upfront costs and remove financial obstacles that prevented small-business owners from obtaining licenses. It should be noted, however, that predatory partnership were discovered and investigated in Oakland. This was a problem and an unintended consequence to the equity analyses.
Virginia’s case involved two bills from the 2020 General Assembly that directed the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLCA&R) to examine how Virginia could legalize adult cannabis use. The emphasis was on the prior harm to communities that were disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.
It was intended to offer recommendations and opportunities for redress via adult-use legalization. The sprawling study outlined many options to address disparities. It included mechanisms and pathways that could allow homegrown cultivation, as well as new community reinvestment programs, which would be funded from tax revenue for legalized products.
These studies, although not perfect, offer community members the opportunity to provide their input and create new mechanisms and pathways that allow legal marijuana markets to reconcile with and provide redress to those who have been negatively impacted by poverty and over-policing.
2. Cap licenses
Multi-state operators, with cash, capital and investors, tend to be first to gain licenses in a competitive market. This is because states like Pennsylvania (medical cannabis), California (adult use), Nevada (limited licenses for adult-use markets), and Illinois (limited licenses for adult-use) limit the initial number of licenses. Large corporations are often able to sink hundreds of thousands of dollar into license applications, fees and consultants to get a license.
It is easy to see the effects: fewer licenses means less chance for entrepreneurs, small businesses, legacy operators, returning citizens, and legacy operators to get licenses. The high barriers to entry, including costs, political influence and technical knowledge, hinder states from tackling the unregulated underground market. This only widens the gap between legal and legacy. California is an example of this. The vast majority of the market, however, remains in the hands the underground market after five years.
California is a great example of what states can learn from. By allowing no licensing caps and lowering barriers to entry for applications, more people are able to obtain a cannabis license. Legal markets can also be encouraged to openly operate without fear of prosecution, retribution, or imprisonment.
The lack of licenses can also be a problem. Legal businesses have more options to contribute to taxes. Tax revenue can then be used to pay reparations to Black and Brown communities that were most affected by the War on Drugs.
3. Expungement and reentry are possible.
Legalizing cannabis is not just about the benjamins. It’s a human right to possess, grow and use cannabis. We must also address the injustice of penalizing and imprisoning people wrongly convicted or sentenced for using cannabis as a medical remedy in the American Pharmacopia, which was published as late as 1942.
First, acknowledge and admit the damage done by a racist domestic conflict on Black and Brown communities, patients, anti-war activists, and other people. After releasing all cannabis-related prisoners, it is possible to allow them to decide how the market should operate, including taxes and revenue allocation. This will help to stabilize and address their ongoing social and political determinants.