As more states enter the growing landscape of legal marijuana, jurisdictions are taking on the responsibility of addressing social justice and equity for communities targeted by the drug war in their legislation earlier in the process instead of trying to address the issue later, as has been the case in many states that have ended cannabis prohibition to date.
For Shaleen Title, the sea change is timely and welcome.
In September 2017, the drug policy activist and attorney became one of five members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission after her appointment by the state’s governor, treasurer and attorney general. The body is tasked with overseeing the commonwealth’s marijuana legislation, and Title helped draft its mandate to include individuals from communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition in the legal industry. The Commission is also charged with reducing barriers to entry for people of color, women and veterans.
Since legalization went into effect, the commission voted to initially limit social consumption licenses exclusively for equity program participants and craft cooperatives, and discussed allowing only microbusinesses to deliver directly to consumers. Title and her fellow commissioners will consider these types of licenses this spring.
But Massachusetts isn’t alone in looking for ways to make the marijuana industry more equitable.
Rhode Island lawmakers recently filed a bill titled the Cannabis Equity Act of 2019 that calls on the Ocean State “to ensure that persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty” receive the necessary assistance to become entrepreneurs and employees in the industry. Meanwhile, black lawmakers in New York are threatening to block legalization efforts until assurances are made that communities of color will benefit from the multi-billion dollar industry.
Massachusetts’s Social Equity Program is accepting applications for participants, and vendors are invited to submit their bids to offer equity program applicants training, mentorship and technical assistance through April 5. Despite swift progress over the last year, just ten retail stores have opened in Massachusetts so far, and reporting from the Commission’s own data shows that few black- and Latinx-owned businesses have submitted completed applications for cannabis licenses.
To learn more about the Commonwealth’s progress to date, Marijuana Moment spoke to Commissioner Title via email and asked about what she and fellow regulators are doing to further reduce barriers to entry for underrepresented communities. She also addressed how cannabis social equity has become a major policy issue in the 2020 presidential election.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Full disclosure: Title and Marijuana Moment’s publisher co-founded the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority in 2012 and have worked together on various drug policy reform efforts.)
Marijuana Moment: Massachusetts’ cannabis equity program is officially live. How is it going so far?
Shaleen Title: While it’s very early, it’s an important time to remember the vision that the people of Massachusetts put forth through the legalization ballot question and legislation. Our mandates to include businesses of all sizes, farmers, craft cooperatives, people of color, women, veterans and disproportionately harmed communities paint a vivid picture of an industry defined by meaningful participation. We are fostering a market where people from all different backgrounds provide all types of experiences for consumers in a regulated, consistent environment.
Like everyone who feels strongly about the underlying goals of the program—reducing barriers to entry, providing professional and technical services for those facing systemic barriers, and promoting reparative practices in the cannabis industry—I am often frustrated, because it never feels like it’s moving fast enough. But I remind myself that at this early phase, even a 5 percent shift in the right direction will compound into a massive impact as the industry grows.
MM: The Commission voted to initially limit social consumption licenses to social equity program participants and craft cooperatives, and delivery to those groups as well as microbusinesses. They also formed a working group where local officials will collaborate with commissioners on the framework for a social consumption pilot program. What other wins can you tell us about?
ST: As we moved closer to those discussions this spring, I was pleasantly surprised to see a majority of the Cannabis Advisory Board members vote to allow those licenses, including temporary event licenses, and to exclusively offer them to certain disadvantaged groups and small businesses. From the perspective that these types of businesses are necessary—both as lower-capital entrepreneurship opportunities, and to allow marijuana consumers to go about their lives as law-abiding members of society—this feels like a win. More than half of the advisory board members are appointed by the governor, attorney general and treasurer, so to me these policy recommendations represent how far the conversation about legal marijuana businesses has come over the past year.
MM: As a reflection of the Commission’s data, it has been reported that next to no black or Latinx candidates have applied. Why do you think that is?
ST: To be clear, those numbers are reported directly by the Commission at every meeting. It’s important to us that we collect industry statistics to hold ourselves accountable and that we make them easily accessible. I’ve been heartened to see that the public thinks this is as important as we do.
At this point, the Commission has approved provisional licenses for two self-reported minority-owned businesses. I note “self-reported” because it’s important for us to collect data on businesses that have been audited by the state as being owned and controlled by the people who say they own the company.
As I see it, the reason why we haven’t received enough completed applications from the groups we are trying to reach is a chicken-and-egg problem. Our licensing process asks whether an applicant is capable of running a business: do you have a location, capital, a host community agreement? If you can demonstrate that you do, you receive a provisional license. But landlords, investors and municipalities want to know if you have a license before they will give you those things. We have taken several intentional steps to make our licensing process more accessible than most, including very low fees, fee waivers for certain groups, no numerical capital requirement and no exclusions for cannabis offenses unless they involved distribution to a minor. But the process still tends to favor those who can procure locations, local approval and capital through existing resources and privilege.
We are planning to conduct a robust study on participation in the industry and barriers to entry, both because Massachusetts law requires us to and because it’s not enough to point to obvious barriers. When a process requires an unreasonably high amount of capital, whether intentional or not, it sets you up to fail, and regulations can change that. For example, potentially a local cannabis chef could receive technical assistance to create a business plan, rent a shared commercial kitchen space just for equity applicants, develop craft edible products and then deliver them straight to consumers as part of the microbusiness delivery pilot program. If they have agreed to hire people with drug convictions, are of Black or Latino descent and otherwise have qualified for economic empowerment priority, they could go straight to the front of the line for review and licensing. Those kinds of approaches are more direct than having each qualified applicant try to raise millions of dollars.
MM: What is the Commission considering as additional ways to reduce barriers to entry into the industry for underrepresented people?
ST: We recently approved our first license to a general applicant (not a medical dispensary or economic empowerment applicant), and it was a business owned by a woman. She didn’t have any special priority; she just managed to get through the process first. To me, that’s a sign we are well on our way to creating an accessible pathway. In a recent letter to my fellow commissioners, I compared our equity program to helping people cross a bridge as we build it, and asked to have a discussion on just this topic. Everyone came through, and during our last two public meetings we came up with a great list of ideas to explore, in addition to the programs we already offer. These ideas run the range from short-term to long-term, and administrative to visionary.
All of them are potentially useful tools to reduce barriers to entry into the industry:
—Issue formal recommendations to the legislature addressing the creation of grant programs or interest-free loan programs for equity program participants.
—Address the barriers to entry posed by having to secure real estate, facility design and local approval processes by creating regulations that allow shared-use cultivation and manufacturing space for certain groups of applicants or licensees. And to also explore community trusts and other models for affordable commercial space that enable small businesses to share space and costs.
—Create a single-packet or abbreviated application process for certain groups that takes place before the local approval process, specifically before the negotiation of a host community agreement.
—Consider requiring retailers to source a certain percentage of products from equity program participants, microbusinesses or craft co-ops.
—Provide more detailed information and data about compliance on the Commission website, with the goal of minimizing the need for applicants to hire consultants to interpret regulations and requirements.
The next step is for our staff to report back to the commission on the feasibility and suggested next steps for each idea.
MM: This spring the Cannabis Control Commission is expected to develop draft rules for social consumption and home delivery licenses, and final rules are expected in June. What else is coming down the pipeline?
ST: There is no guarantee that social consumption and home delivery will be approved by the Commission, but here is the timeline for discussion, which takes place in public:
Listening sessions in March, draft regulations presented to the public in April/May, public comment period and public hearings in May and final regulations filed in June.
MM: With legalization underway in Massachusetts, citizens may feel their work is done. What support does the Commission need from the public?
ST: The most important and impactful thing that Massachusetts citizens can do, by far, is to use your voice to call for your vision of what the cannabis industry should look like locally. Being a knowledgeable citizen is one area where there are minimal barriers to entry. If you carefully read and remember the CCC’s general municipal guidance and local equity guidance (as well as the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s model ordinance), you’ll know consultants charge who charge as much as $100/hour. A lot of people who are listed on the “Women of Weed” and “Cannabis Rockstars” type lists got their start just by paying attention and showing up consistently. This is such a new and rapidly changing environment that people who are able to keep up to date on the latest developments quickly become trusted as resources and experts.
I encourage you to be bold and visionary. Really think about how the cannabis marketplace can be part of your existing local culture. It doesn’t have to look exactly like alcohol, nor should it. Government officials can be so focused on the mental checklist in front of us—security, signage, traffic, packaging—that we can forget to have vision until constituents bring it up to us.
MM: With states like Rhode Island starting to introduce their own cannabis equity legislation, what influence, if any, do you think Massachusetts is having on other jurisdictions around the country?
ST: It’s been fascinating to watch the process unfold in other states. I see strong coalitions holding a firm position that legalization will not move forward unless it puts communities of color first. That’s wonderful to see, and my message for those coalitions is to keep each other’s contact information! You will need to come back together over and over and over, especially after the legislation passes and the most complex work starts.
I don’t think it’s clear to leaders in any state what precisely is meant by putting communities of color first. The consistent themes are automatic expungement, tax revenues reinvested into disproportionately harmed communities and economic justice through prioritized ownership and employment, but no state has provided a functioning model for this yet. That’s where I think Massachusetts’s role comes in (along with California), and why we can be almost obsessive about collecting and transparently releasing detailed data.
I noted at a previous meeting that when Rep. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez asked about racial justice in cannabis business licensing at the first-ever Congressional banking hearing on cannabis she began by sharing Massachusetts data and noting that the industry does not seem representative of the groups that have borne the greatest brunt of injustice, and in fact may be compounding the racial wealth gap. As a solution, she asked about prioritizing the front-line and most impacted communities for licenses, which of course is the Massachusetts model that I believe our data shows needs to be supplemented. It seems to me like the national dialogue is stalled waiting on the first states to collect data showing a model that works. It’s more pressure and urgency to take this effort seriously, because the impacts will be felt far beyond Massachusetts.
MM: Between Rep. Barbara Lee’s recent filing of three pieces of cannabis social justice legislation in Congress, Sen. Cory Booker’s reintroduction of the Marijuana Justice Act, and your own tweet acknowledging Booker’s having done more for cannabis social justice than any other 2020 candidate, what are your thoughts on how equity is becoming part of the bigger conversation surrounding the presidential election?
I’m not a one-issue voter and haven’t decided yet, but credit where credit is due, Sen. Booker has done more for equitable, justice-focused marijuana legalization than any other 2020 candidate. https://t.co/G8TSCHo9Om
— Shaleen Title (@shaleentitle) March 1, 2019
ST: We’ve come a long way from when candidates like President Barack Obama and Senator Kamala Harris merely laughed when asked about legalization! This campaign season is unique in the way it’s bringing issues of equality and justice to the forefront. Legalization itself is a given, as all the 2020 presidential candidates already support it. The more interesting question is, what type of legalization do they support? While your average voter may not immediately understand how legalization and economic justice are tied together, in my experience most people agree that they want policies that avoid creating “Big Marijuana.”
In line with many of the other issues the candidates are being forced to consider in a serious way, I think a packed primary is a perfect opportunity to ask how each candidate will use legalization to reinvest into communities harmed by the war on drugs. Certainly the conversation around cannabis and equity is not happening in a vacuum, and it shouldn’t. The way a candidate looks at legalization is a representation of whether they stand for people or profits.
MM: Finally, the Boston Globe recently reported on a Commission investigation into whether large marijuana companies are flouting the state’s ownership limitation rules by effectively controlling more licenses than they are allowed. What can you say about the status of that inquiry and more generally about efforts to make sure a few so-called “Big Marijuana” players don’t end up controlling the entire market?
ST: The Commission has been concerned about multistate operators’ attempts to bypass the Commission’s regulations and obtain more than three licenses. I fully trust our staff and their ability to ensure that all applicants comply with the law and the Commission’s regulations. I can tell you that we do not tolerate marijuana operators that attempt to undermine the legal industry in Massachusetts, including the limits on ownership and control. As we continue to implement the law, we will enforce our regulations and strengthen protections against anyone who tries to dominate the market illegally or exploit small players.
Massachusetts Governor Defends Closing Recreational Marijuana Shops To Prevent Out-Of-State Shoppers
The governor of Massachusetts doubled down on the state’s temporary closure of recreational marijuana shops during the coronavirus outbreak on Tuesday, telling reporters that allowing them to reopen could exacerbate the health crisis by attracting visitors from states where cannabis remains illegal.
During a press conference, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) was asked about the state’s decision to exclude adult-use stores from the list of “essential businesses” that can continue to operate during the pandemic. He stressed that medical cannabis dispensaries can continue to serve patients but seemed to argue that the lack of regulated marijuana markets in surrounding states is forcing the state’s hand on recreational retailers.
“We are doing a lot of things to try to get people to stay at home,” he said, adding that travel advisories currently instruct out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“There is tons of evidence that because Massachusetts is one of the few states in the Northeast that has legalized recreational marijuana, that if we make recreational marijuana available as an essential business—remember, medical marijuana is available as an essential business—if we make recreational marijuana available, we are going to have to deal with the fact that people are going to come here from all over the place across the Northeast and create issues for us with respect to the fundamental issue we are trying to solve for here, which is to stop the spread,” Baker said. “For that reason and that reason alone, I think this is just a non-starter with us.”
Asked whether the state could make it so only Massachusetts residents could access adult-use shops, the governor said “I don’t know if you can do that legally,” though it’s “certainly something that some folks have talked about.”
Baker is facing pressure from regulators and industry stakeholders to allow recreational stores to stay open. Layoffs and furloughs have already started occurring in the market in response to his order.
In a letter to the governor on Monday, dozens of marijuana operators in the state argued that while they appreciate the need to protect public health during this pandemic, shuttering their businesses means people will turn to the illicit, unregulated market for cannabis, and that poses its own set of risks.
Shaleen Title, who serves as a commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, told Marijuana Moment that public safety “must remain our top priority as Massachusetts confronts the coronavirus pandemic” and she appreciates the governor “for recognizing that even as we strive to minimize unnecessary interactions, access to medical cannabis is essential to the health of tens of thousands of patients in Massachusetts.”
“And I welcome and share his confidence in the ability of the Commission and its medical licensees to operate safely amid the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, including by enhancing sanitation procedures, limiting the number of patrons, and allowing curbside pickup,” she said.
But she parted with the governor when it comes to recreational businesses.
“I believe those same measures, potentially along with a restriction on out-of-state customers, could be applied to adult-use facilities to allow for resumed operations,” she said. “Reopening these businesses would provide access to the many adult-use consumers who rely on cannabis for medical purposes.”
As the U.S. grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak, numerous states are having to decide where to draw the line for cannabis businesses. Many allow both adult-use and medical cannabis dispensaries to operate, with some recommending social distancing measures such as curbside pickup for marijuana products to mitigate the spread of the virus.
According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans agree that medical cannabis dispensaries are “essential services” that should remain open.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Marijuana Legalization ‘Not Likely’ In New York Budget, Governor Says On Eve Of Deadline
Marijuana legalization is “not likely” to be included in the final budget in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said on Tuesday, explaining that the issue proved too complicated as the state grapples with the coronavirus.
Another sign that the policy change isn’t happening as Cuomo and advocates had planned comes from a pair of newly revised budget bills that exclude the proposal, making it all but certain that legalization won’t make the final cut.
“Too much, too little time,” the governor said of the proposal during a press conference.
Wednesday is the deadline to deliver a budget, and so the identical Senate and Assembly spending bills that were freshly amended on Tuesday are unlikely to substantially change before they get a vote and sent to the governor’s desk. A provision in Cuomo’s original proposal that would implement an adult-use cannabis market was “intentionally omitted,” text of the legislation states. That phrase is used repeatedly throughout the legislation for policies that missed the cut.
That’s not to say that there’s no appetite for the reform move within the legislature. It was expected to make it into the budget, but the coronavirus outbreak shifted legislative priorities and legalization evidently proved too complicated an issue to work out ahead of the deadline. Top lawmakers have said there’s no reason that they can’t develop a comprehensive reform plan outside of the budget.
However, Cuomo said earlier this month that his preference would be to address legalization through the budget because, outside of that process, “the easiest thing for a legislative body to do is to do nothing.”
The release of the budget bills seems to confirm details included on a draft budget report that was shared with Marijuana Moment on Monday. It similarly said that the “Adopted Budget omits the Executive proposal to legalize adult use cannabis.”
A revised standalone legalization bill was recently introduced in the Senate, and advocates hoped the language would be inserted into the budget, but that didn’t pan out. However, it’s possible that legislators could still take it up separately after the budget is handled. That said, it remains to be seen when the legislature, which has scaled down other activity amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, will be able to tackle the issue.
A spokesperson for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Liz Krueger (D), told Marijuana Moment on Monday that “nothing is done until it is done, but the Senator has said previously that the Governor’s staff essentially took marijuana off the table weeks ago” in budget talks.
The senator still believes that “if it can’t get done the right way in the budget right in the middle of overlapping public health and fiscal crises, that there is no reason it can’t get done right later.”
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who has also sponsored a legalization bill, told Politico that “I wish that it was [included in the budget], but I don’t believe that it is.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to Senate and Assembly leadership for comment about the budget bills, but representatives were not immediately available.
“While legalizing cannabis is necessary to reduce the decades of unjust, racist targeting of communities of color in New York, our state faces a public health crisis right now and efforts to contain COVID-19 demand legislators’ full attention,” Kassandra Frederique or the Drug Policy Alliance said. “We remain committed to seeing legalization passed in New York at a time when critical components of equity and community reinvestment can be thoroughly addressed.”
“The regulation of marijuana in our state must be centered in economic and racial justice now more than ever, because we know the same communities targeted by drug enforcement are the ones with the least access to healthcare right now, the ones grappling with decades of the economic toll from criminalization, with low wages, unstable housing, and the ones losing jobs and loved ones at the same time,” she added. “The creation of a diversified and equitable industry that supports New York-based small businesses and farmers will be imperative coming out of this crisis. When the dust settles and New York has survived this pandemic, these communities that are on the frontlines of this crisis—in addition to the legacy of harmful enforcement—must be the center of our rebuilding effort.”
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana celebrated reports that legalization would not be included in the budget, stating that “the consideration of marijuana legalization and commercialization during this outbreak is unconscionable and extremely shortsighted.”
Today it was reported that efforts to legalize marijuana through the budget process in New York have failed.
This is a tremendous victory for public health and safety.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/yVr9rlAr8g
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) March 31, 2020
Cuomo also originally planned to tour legal cannabis states to learn from their experiences and take lessons back home, but that plan was also derailed due to the coronavirus.
The governor pitched legalization in his budget proposal last year as well. But following months of negotiation, the legislature failed to produce a passable bill—with disagreements centering on issues such as how tax revenue would be allocated—and so the effort carried over to this year.
Cuomo seemed optimistic that 2020 would be the year for legal cannabis in New York, and he touted the proposal in his State of the State address in January. Just last week, he indicated the effort was still alive, though he also recognized that it may prove too complicated an issue to ultimately deliver through the budget this round.
Meanwhile, drug policy reform efforts across the country are struggling amid the pandemic.
Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.
This story was updated to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
DC Activists Have A New Plan To Get Psychedelics Decriminalization On The Ballot Despite Coronavirus
Activists in Washington, D.C. are considering a new strategy to get a measure to decriminalize psychedelics on the November ballot, with the coronavirus outbreak having forced them to suspend in-person signature gathering.
While Decriminalize Nature D.C. hoped that officials would pass emergency legislation allowing the digital collection of signatures, they aren’t actively considering that option. And the District Council’s chairman said he would not simply place the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide regardless of the signature count.
That’s left the group in a challenging position. But they’re not out of ideas yet.
Now the campaign is exploring the possibility of conducting “micro-scale petition signature collection” to make the ballot. The plan would involve having petitions mailed to supporters, who would circulate it and collect signatures from “registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors” and then return the signed petitions to the campaign headquarters.
We've received excellent feedback from our NEW Supporter Survey! This is your chance to give input as we adapt to opportunities and challenges presented by COVID-19. Please complete and share the survey here: https://t.co/B0LYBI4eXX #DecrimNature #Initiative81 #RestoringOurRoots
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) March 30, 2020
They’ve launched an online survey to determine the feasibility of the option. It asks prospective volunteers to estimate how many signatures they could theoretically collect under that limited scope and provide their mailing information should the campaign decide to move forward with the plan.
This is one of the last remaining options for the 2020 effort, which is working to make a wide range of psychedelics among the district’s lowest law enforcement priorities.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said during a press conference on Friday that he “would not say that we’re looking for legislative action to put [the initiative] on the ballot” outside of the conventional process.
Board of Elections Chairman Michael Bennett also took a question about the prospect of allow electronic signature collection. He said his panel is not considering the possibility “at this point.”
Watch the comments below, starting around 22:15:
Decriminalize Nature D.C. is one of numerous groups working to change local and state drug policy laws. And it’s not alone in its struggle amid the current pandemic.
A California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.
Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.