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Do Equity Measures For Legal Cannabis States Go Far Enough?

Massachusetts Cannabis Dispensaries See a lot of Business from New York Residents

Just last November, Massachusetts cannabis for adult use went live, and after the first two months, initial sales racked up 23.8 million dollars. These were the first recreational cannabis sales to take place on the east coast. By June of 2019, this number swelled to 140 million dollars, according to a report by Marijuana Business Daily  

Massachusetts dispensaries have seen a remarkable boost from outsiders coming from places like New York who wish to try recreational cannabis, with one dispensary noting that a good portion of their customers, up to 60%, came from New York. 

With many in the region ecstatic to purchase recreational cannabis, the Massachusetts treasury has gathered a good chunk of change for things like Medicaid, secondary elementary education, higher education, public assistance programs and much more. 

In a similar fashion, efforts toward cannabis “social equity” programs have seen recent progress. These programs aim to center communities and individuals disproportionately affected by past marijuana laws in the legal cannabis industry. 

On July 17th, 2019, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commision approved six organizations to serve as liaisons and provide support to budding cannabis entrepreneurs as they enter the industry, with these entrepreneurs coming from communities impacted by the War on Drugs and poverty. 

Cannabis equity programs aid people if they start businesses, but often ignore the many who were incarcerated long ago for cannabis possession.
Cannabis equity programs aid people if they start businesses, but often ignore the many who were incarcerated long ago for cannabis possession.

But do these efforts go far enough in actually helping these communities recover from the thorns of cannabis prohibition and increased police surveillance?

Many states with legal medical and/or adult use cannabis have implemented programs aimed at repairing and mending the wounds left by cannabis prohibition on individuals and communities, particularly communities of color. 

For example, according to California’s social equity program charter, their goal is, “to promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry in order to decrease disparities in life outcomes for marginalized communities, and to address the disproportionate impacts of the War on Drugs in those communities.”

Furthermore, on July 18th, 2019, Michighan unveiled its own social equity plan as they wait for their recreational market to take hold. Their program identified 19 cities, who were “hit hard by the War on Drugs,” that they want to get more involved in the upcoming recreational industry. 

They will offer cannabis entrepreneurs from those 19 communities assistance with marijuana license applications, reduced fees, and better access to public resources. In the end, they want half of all marijuana businesses in these cities to be owned by “social equity participants.” 

While these programs aim at righting the wrongs of marijuana prohibition, they often fail to address the root causes of the War on Drugs wake; the needless incarceration of people, primarily people of color, for nonviolent drug offenses.

While these social equity programs encourage business, many potential “social equity participants” are still in prison for cannabis possession charges that are now legal.
While these social equity programs encourage business, many potential “social equity participants” are still in prison for cannabis possession charges that are now legal.

Unfortunately, many of these “social equity” programs find success difficult. 

For example, at the beginning of July, 2019, the Minority Cannabis Business Association announced that Los Angeles had failed to meet its stated goals in terms of cannabis business equity, noting that, “Politics and well-funded special interests have dogged Los Angeles’ implementation to the point that its intended outcomes are not being met and communities long harmed by the War on Drugs remain on the sidelines.”

Although the Los Angeles City Council wrote social equity language into ordinances regulating new cannabis businesses nearly two years ago, they have yet to issue their first social equity license. Many would be dispensary owners are forced to wait, in spite of being prime candidates for the supposed equity programs. 

Moreover, while these ordinances and programs encourage cannabis business, they don’t necessarily repair the most egregious abuses of cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs, the incarceration itself.

Many state with legal cannabis still have individuals serving long prison sentences for cannabis
Many state with legal cannabis still have individuals serving long prison sentences for cannabis

While social equity programs in places like Massachusetts, Michigan, and California aim to help empower those with former drug convictions, many still languish in prison for crimes that are now legal in those states, with the most notable example being Michighan’s Michael Thompson. 

Michael Thompson famously received a 40-60 year sentence for selling 3 pounds of cannabis to an undercover police officer in the early 1990s. He received what Michighan’s supreme court called, “a lengthy sentence,” and as a federal court described, “they would not have given [Thompson] a sentence of that magnitude.” 

Despite the efforts of Michigan voters, who legalized cannabis on election day in November, 2018, Michael Thompson and men like him still sit in prison on cannabis charges. 

Although social equity programs can only go so far, It remains to be seen how communities can rebuild and rebound from the effects of the War on Drugs when the people who make up these communities, like Thompson, are still imprisoned for the very thing the social equity programs aim to encourage. 

Until social equity programs do more to give people like Michael Thompson their freedom, they will be far too limited in their scope to actually heal communities affected by the War on Drugs.

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