Cannabis Social Equity Programs Must Uniquely Serve Each Community, Says Experts

by Andrew Ward

Social equity is a topic often mentioned in the cannabis circle. Still, many within the industry believe that states and businesses alike are more so serving up platitudes than actual progress. However, the recent protests and movements calling for social justice reforms have galvanized many cannabis spaces. 

The market built on the backs of the victims of the failed ongoing drug war is being challenged to take action now. Businesses and industry organizations are committing to doing their part, with numerous putting the wheels in motion already. However, the state and municipal level is a much slower process — one where many legal markets continue not to have a social equity program to address Black communities and others most affected.

James Watts is the co-founding organizer for National Expungement Week (N.E.W.) and co-founder of community education and awareness group We BAKED. Watts highlighted the need for social equity across all industries, with cannabis being essential. “Social equity in the cannabis industry is an opportunity to create an inclusive space that allows the Black and brown communities most affected by the war on drugs to use skills that have been historically criminalized,” explained Watts. 

Kebra Smith-Bolden, a Connecticut-based cannabis nurse overseeing six medical cannabis certification locations for the company CannaHealth, told Green Flower why it’s vital that social equity be part of the foundation of the legal American market. 

“Social equity in cannabis is an imperative need because of the urgency of building equity into the regulated industry from the beginning – and as we can see from the statistics, that isn’t happening right now,” Smith-Bolden stated.

With social equity being such an imperative need, what does a program need to include to ensure it creates necessary change?

What Goes Into A Social Equity Program

Many groups and advocates have long labored over what would be the ideal goal for a social equity program. With few in existence, programs are still taking shape, with numerous viable ideas to consider. 

Jamal Barghouti is the interim director of marketing for the cannabis operations software company Blackbird. Barghouti spent more than a year working as the company’s diversity, inclusion, and equity outreach manager. “l think to speak broadly to what specifically makes a program successful, it must start with intent and continue to reiterate that intent at every step in the process,” he explained.

Barghouti elaborated, “There must be an acknowledgement of the reason behind these programs and an active participation, not just from entrepreneurs who participate in the program, but cannabis companies and regulators alike, to see the impact we hope to see with these programs; community reinvestment and equitable ownership.”

Tahir Johnson, business development and diversity equity and inclusion manager for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), pointed Green Flower toward the non-profit’s six-fold goals to creating a social equity program. They are:

1. Repair the damage to individuals caused by discriminatory enforcement of prohibition

2. Create more equitable licensing outcomes through the application process

3. Ensure the industry reflects the local community

4. Address financial barriers to market entry

5. Support companies and individuals entering the industry from disproportionately-impacted communities

6. Invest tax revenue in communities harmed by prohibition

Of the many access barriers to the industry discussed, Johnson highlighted the need for doing away with licensing caps, where only a certain number of business owners can operate within a municipality or state. “When you have a limited availability, it creates a system where people with greater resources, money, have the ability to win.” 

Johnson added, “By removing those licenses caps, you create access to the opportunity for everybody that wants to be part of [the cannabis market].” 

Both Blackbird’s Barghouti and NCIA’s Johnson cited the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s work for their work developing a local, state, and federal resource for cannabis legislation.

“By outlining policies at each level of government, MCBA has laid the groundwork for how to build an inclusive and reparative regulatory industry, one that acknowledges the history of the plant and the effects of prohibition on Black and brown communities,” said Barghouti.

N.E.W’s James Watts added to the importance of creating Black and minority ownership and wealth building from the nascent space. “Social equity programs need to include funding to provide technical assistance and no-interest loans to applicants. Without significant funding, these programs are relatively meaningless.”

Regardless of the initiative, Smith-Bolden said that education must be at the center of every program. “Social equity programs in cannabis must include education, not just regarding the plant, but basic business practices such as how to run a business, how to avoid predatory lenders, as well as providing ongoing support and education as each cannabis business grows.”

Far From A Template 

The consensus is that while there is no one social equity program to satisfy every community, a broad set of goals like those mentioned above should be driving the conversation when creating a plan in government or business. 

“One-size-fits-all plans do not address the differing needs of marginalized communities or the disparate impacts of the war on drugs on specific communities,” explained N.E.W’s Watts. Instead, he asserted that discussions centered on the community are vital in identifying and supporting local needs. 

Smith-Bolden agrees that each social equity program must be unique while sharing particular elements with other plans. The leading cannabis nurse called for setting aside significant portions of licenses to Black communities and those most affected by the drug war. Additionally, the expungement of cannabis records and investment in the communities most affected must be included in plans. 

Cannabis industry education must also extend to those reentering society, with the cannabis industry welcoming them back in. Discussing legacy operators, Smith-Bolden said, “They should not be disqualified from working in this industry due to prior cannabis-related convictions.” She added, “As a matter of fact, they should be considered first taking into account the fact that they have “industry experience.”

While few examples are currently in operation, those who spoke to Green Flower for this article cited Oakland, the first social equity program, as well as legislative aspects of Colorado and Oklahoma’s markets, as guide points so far in the discussion. Beyond those, the landscape is still taking shape at this time. Respondents believe much more needs to be done before achieving their goals for social equity in the cannabis space.

“As many people are coming to an awareness of systemic racism as it relates to the criminal justice system, we have to critically analyze all of our other systems and processes for how they may contribute to barriers marginalized people face,” said Blackbird’s Barghouti, noting that other industries must do the same. 

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