As New York and New Jersey gear up for adult use cannabis legalization, the topic of racial equity is heating up. At the Marijuana: Justice Equity and Investment conference, at the Albany Capital Center in New York on December 11th and 12th, panels focused on how the cannabis industry help create economic justice. The conference, sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, served as an educational platform for people to air their grievances with the lack of equity and diversity in the cannabis industry across the board. Theories on how to rectify the situation abound.

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According to New York State Assemblymember Crystal People-Stokes, “Equity is so important because we know adult use legalization is going to end up with corporations at some point, but it really needs to start at the grassroots level. The corporations are going to get it after us, not before. We are going to get it first and then give them the opportunity to partner with us so we can raise our communities and create generational wealth by building businesses; not just by selling cannabis but with ancillary businesses also. For example, helping people file for licenses is a business in itself.”

Reinvesting in Communities of Color

Cannabis business owners need to reinvest in communities of color IStock / GaudiLab
While the licenses are an obvious fungible commodity,  the Assemblywoman points out a plethora of additional opportunities for people of color in the cannabis industry, in ancillary areas such as packaging, design, marketing, delivery, laboratories, and other spin-offs from the industry. She also suggests that mega-businesses who would like to have access to local communities should consider offering zero or low-interest loans.

“What value are they (canna-corps) adding to the communities that have been impacted? What effort will they put forth to see these communities improve five and ten years from now?” asks Peoples-Stokes concernedly.

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In addition to staving off the encroaching canna-corps and creating job opportunities, undoing the generational damage done to communities of color that were negatively impacted by the failed war on drugs is a high priority. Clearing the records of people previously incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes is arguably a necessity. Cat Packer is the Executive Director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation of the City of Los Angeles.

According to her, “By following the Los Angeles model of providing the individuals and communities who are most impacted by cannabis criminalization the opportunity to clear past criminal records, and offering them access to legitimate jobs and business ownership opportunities, we can move closer towards economic justice." Additionally, by reinvesting cannabis tax revenue into the same communities where a concentration of cannabis arrests have deterred access to housing, employment, and education, adversely affected communities can finally begin to heal.

“If you are in the cannabis industry, you are in the compliance industry. Communities that were impacted must be at the table every single time so that they can be a part of these conversations early on. Equity has to be used as a lens to view every single decision made in this process,” Packer says emphatically.

Cannabis Legalization Needs A New Approach

Federal and State Marijuana Laws and gavel in a court. iStock / designer491
Attorney and Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title agrees. In her keynote conference speech, she disclosed that legalization brought quantifiable benefits to the government’s coffers in the form of millions of dollars of tax revenue. This income reverberates as far as to local food truck operators who serve the people waiting in line to enter cannabis dispensaries, for example.

However, while Massachusetts issued 76 provisional licenses, none of them were allocated to certified minority-owned businesses. Title suggests the coming wave of adult-use marijuana legalization laws must be grounded in an entirely new framework.

She believes the future of equity is low-capital licenses, such as social consumption and delivery, reserved and dedicated for the most harmed communities, as well as the necessary technical assistance to win a license and run a business. Title also believes that granting disenfranchised people or minorities “a tangible asset in the form of a license will pave the way for private capital investment, which will, in turn, improve impacted communities”  and provide socio-economic justice.