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Former State Marijuana Regulator Outlines Steps To Ensure Social Equity In The Legal Industry

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What will it take to effectively put equity first in a legal marijuana market? That’s a question a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator is seeking to answer in a new research paper.

While lawmakers have studied and enacted marijuana policies meant to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs, and encourage marginalized people to participate in the industry, no legal state has fully achieved equity so far, Shaleen Title argued in the Ohio State University paper published last week.

But as state cannabis experiments continue to evolve, “we are seeing remarkable progress with respect to the involvement, inclusion, and support of people who have experienced disproportionate harm from prohibition,” Title, who now serves as distinguished cannabis policy practitioner in residence at Ohio State University’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.

And there are plenty of lessons to be learned and incorporated as the legalization movement expands.

(Disclosure: Title supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly pledge on Patreon.)

There are three central considerations that regulators should take into account, her paper argues: How to define social equity applicants, what kind of benefits should be afforded to those businesses and how to craft licensing priorities that puts disadvantaged communities first.

“The first social equity programs were implemented in 2016 and we’ve made enormous advances in equitable cannabis policies since then. By government standards, this level of change in five years is utterly unheard of,” Title, who is also CEO of the drug policy think tank Parabola Center and is vice chair of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, told Marijuana Moment. “Especially when you look at states like New York, you can see that impacted communities are watching the lessons from earlier states and coming together to demand more concrete and informed social equity policies.”

“I hope we keep up this rate of change and that my work helps to support continuous progress and even better results,” she said.

Here are the key takeaways from the new report—titled, “Fair and Square: How to Effectively Incorporate Social Equity Into Cannabis Laws and Regulations”: 

To begin the process of promoting equity, a first step for lawmakers and regulators is to define who should qualify as a social equity applicant.

There are a number of factors that can go into that definition, including whether the applicant lives in a jurisdiction that’s been disproportionately impacted by prohibition or if they or relatives have been personally impacted by criminalization. Race is also a factor, as black and brown people have been disproportionately targeted by punitive marijuana policies with long-lasting consequences.

A major problem that advocates have identified as state markets mature is that, despite efforts to bring those who’ve suffered the most under prohibition into the legal, regulated space, those goals by and large have not been met.

Title emphasized that business ownership should also be taken into account, and “only businesses controlled by and with majority ownership by people who qualify for the social equity program should be eligible for program benefits.” That means not letting businesses that are figure-headed by an affected person, but which are actually controlled by other interests, qualify as equity applicants.

What kinds of programs would most effectively promote equity in the industry?

“Social equity programs can provide a range of business benefits including funding, technical and legal assistance, business incubation, and other services,” Title’s paper states. “The programs should take into account that participants may be interested in different types of involvement with the cannabis industry beyond ownership and design benefits to address these different needs.”

Those who qualify as social equity applicants should be given access to necessary capital through grants and forgivable loans, she says. Regulators should also “encourage reasonable zoning requirements to avoid unreasonable prices for suitable real estate,” as well as incentivize co-op spaces for equity businesses to operate.

Technical assistance, workforce development programs and fee waivers for things like applications, licenses and other miscellaneous charges should also be considered as states craft legalization laws with social equity in mind, the paper argues.

“Some states with competitive licensing processes offer social equity applicants additional points when scoring applications,” Title wrote. “Others offer priority or expedited review of social equity applications. Both can be valuable if they are combined with well-designed licensing policies and other types of assistance.”

Enact policies with thoughtful licensing priorities.

When it comes to licensing programs, the paper outlines a number of principles that could help achieve equity objectives. That should involve making strategic regulatory hires, avoiding setting arbitrary deadlines, issuing licenses in a sequential manner to ensure that equity applicants are prioritized and limiting the number of large corporations that can be licensed but not imposing licensing caps overall that could inadvertently keep equity applicants out of the space.

“The purpose of this paper is to share lessons learned from my tenure on the commission and to equip citizens and policymakers with better tools to analyze, plan, and implement workable policies around equity and cannabis,” Title wrote. “These policies have the most impact when they’re enacted early in the process, yet there is little broad familiarity with the policies currently in place and even less understanding of the results they’re producing. Moreover, there is still no standard model that meets the typical objectives of policymakers charged with shaping these fledgling programs.”

“The following recommendations are mine alone, based on my experience as a cannabis commissioner in Massachusetts as well as my close contact with policymakers and people directly affected by social equity policies around the country. A note about the limited value of personal reflection: it quickly becomes clear to anyone who attempts to research social equity programs that such programs vary wildly in approach, goals, implementation, and—maybe most importantly—data collection and evaluation. Officials and the public need better information to make the most informed and effective decisions.”

“The success of a social equity program relies largely on the ability of the agency running it to earn and maintain credibility,” the paper says. “That can be an uphill battle given the past experience of impacted communities when it comes to government and drugs. Legislators and regulators overseeing social equity programs have to demonstrate—through actions, not just words—that they can be trusted and that their motivations are sincere and lasting.”

Title told Marijuana Moment that “the term social equity has been thrown around very loosely recently, so in addition to sharing the lessons learned by the states, I wanted to bring the focus back to the purpose of social equity programs, which is repairing the harms caused by the war on drugs.”

Earlier this year, Title’s Parabola Center proposed changes to a federal marijuana legalization bill to ensure that the market is equitable and empowers communities that have been most impacted by prohibition to benefit from the new industry.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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