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.
New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year
The governor of New Mexico and a top Senate leader are bullish about getting marijuana legalization passed this session, with both making recent comments about what they hope the soon-to-be-introduced legislation will accomplish.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who included the reform as part of her 2021 legislative agenda she released this month, said in a TV interview that she’s “optimistic” about cannabis reform adding that projections show the state gaining thousands of jobs and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
“I’m still really optimistic about cannabis, which is 12,000 jobs,” she told KOB-TV, “and you know by the fifth year in operation, the projections are we would make $600 million a year.”
Also part of my plan for growing New Mexico's economy: legalizing recreational cannabis, which has the potential to create 11,000 jobs and create over hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
I look forward to working with the New Mexico Legislature this year to get it done.
— Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 22, 2021
But while the “large economic boost” that the governor expects legalization to bring is an important component, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are also taking seriously the need to address social equity.
Watch the governor talk about cannabis reform, starting around 4:40 into the video below:
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D) said last week that he’s having ongoing conversations with multiple legislators who plan to sponsor legalization bills, and he’s conveyed to them that whatever piece of legislation advances must “address those fundamental underlying issues” of social justice.
In terms of process, the top lawmaker said it’s important for legislators to be talking about their respective bills early on to resolve as many differences as possible before the issue reaches committee or the floor. The failure to get those issues taken care of in a timely manner is partly why the legislature wasn’t able to pass legalization during last year’s short session.
A bill to legalize cannabis for adult use passed one Senate committee last year only to be rejected in another before the end of the 30-day session. Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it later died in the Senate.
“This year I know the legislators have been working very hard, shaping and crafting these bills, and that kind of from the ground up versus the top down approach that I think is needed for a legislation of this kind,” Wirth told the Growing Forward podcast that’s a joint project of NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS. “Again, we just can’t get it into a final committee in a place where it’s not really ready to go.”
Watch the senator majority leader discuss the legislature’s work to legalize marijuana below:
The new, post-election makeup of key committees has been helping to facilitate this dialogue and get ahead of disagreements, he said.
While Wirth said he expects some of the same voices coming out in opposition to the legislature’s push to enact legalization this session, he’s “feeling more confident” about passing the reform in the Senate this year.
Several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.
Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched last week. New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April 2021.
Wirth said it’s important to make sure that adult-use legalization doesn’t come at the peril of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.
“I just think that it’s a program that’s really been a model for how it’s been rolled out, how it’s worked, and we want to make sure that it stays intact and is still a functioning program,” he said. “That’ll be another a big issue.”
With at least five legalization bills being prepared in the state, Wirth said, there will be plenty for lawmakers to sift through and negotiate this session. The majority leader noted that another question is whether to put marijuana tax dollars in the state’s general fund or to earmark it for specific programs.
Rep. Javier Martinez (D), who has consistently sponsored cannabis reform bills in past sessions, said recently that the “biggest change you’ll see in this bill, which is one of the main points of contention last year, was the creation of a number of different funds, earmarks, tax coming in from cannabis.”
In any case, there’s economic urgency to pass and implement a legal cannabis program. And while no bills have been introduced so far this session, lawmakers expect several to be released as early as this week.
“I’m hopeful that this is the year to get this done,” Wirth said. “I just think the longer we wait, the less of an economic impact it’s going to have, as all of our sister states around us in the country really reach in this direction at pretty high speed.”
Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.
In May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.
Photo by Kyle Jaeger.
GOP Congressman Files Bill To Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana From Losing Benefits
A Republican congressman has filed the second piece of marijuana reform legislation to be introduced so far in the new 117th Congress—this one aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law.
The proposal from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who filed a more expansive version of the measure last year, would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the new bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.
That said, the version Steube introduced last year contained a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for marijuana.
But that language was omitted from this year’s bill, which could create barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.
Carson Steelman, communications director in Steube’s office, told Marijuana Moment that removing that component was politically necessary to advance the previous version through a House committee last year as an amendment to another bill.
“This bill was able to pass through markup with the removal of that portion,” he said. “Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion.”
Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, applauded Steube for the overall bill, saying that “we consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry.”
“However, we are disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care—including cannabis,” he told Marijuana Moment.
But while the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.
The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act had 19 cosponsors last session, including eight Republicans and 11 Democrats.
This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress, both of which are sponsored by Steube. His first bill would simply require that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—a move that the congressman said would free up research into the plant.
That proposal is identical to legislation he filed last year.
While rescheduling is backed by President Joe Biden, who remains opposed to adult-use legalization, it’s not the reform that advocates are getting behind. There are high hopes that a more comprehensive completely remove marijuana from the CSA—while promoting social equity—will move through the 117th Congress.
A bill to accomplish that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, activists are waiting for the legislation to be taken back up with a better chance of making it to Biden’s desk.
That bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president to adopt a pro-legalization position.
Read the text of the veterans-focused marijuana bill below:
Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure
North Dakota’s secretary of state on Friday approved the format of a proposed marijuana initiative, clearing the way for activists to collect signatures to place it on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change.
Rather, Rep. Jason Dockter (R) said he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.
Dockter’s House Bill 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed.
Licensed cultivation facilities that provide cannabis products to retailers “may grow an amount of marijuana sufficient to meet the demands of the public.”
Under the proposal, legal cannabis sales would begin on February 1, 2022.
The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
It’s not clear if they will now still pursue previously announced plans for 2022 in light of the new bill, which they said they are “proud of” and is the result of engaging lawmakers in more than six months’ worth of conversations.
Meanwhile, a separate activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said on Friday that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.
“I am glad the North Dakota legislature is coming to the realization that legalization will move forward with or without them,” Jody Vetter, chairwoman for that effort, the ND for Freedom of Cannabis Act, told Marijuana Moment.
She added that while the Dockter’s bill is “a step in the right direction toward ending prohibition, there are concerns,” pointing to the lack of legal home cultivation and remaining criminal charges for certain cannabis-related activity.
“Criminal charges surrounding possession should only apply if someone is found to be selling cannabis without proper license or contributing to minors,” Vetter said. “We are moving forward with the ND For Freedom of Cannabis Act. Home growing is essential for any legal program and an overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are ready to stop criminally charging citizens for simply possessing cannabis.”
Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that “though this isn’t an ideal legalization bill, it’s a significant testament to the strength of our movement that legalization opponents are now preemptively filing their own legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”
“These lawmakers are aware that a majority of their constituents support legalization, and you have to give them some credit for acknowledging that,” he said.
The bill contains a number of restrictions on labeling and advertising, as well as penalties for impaired driving. A health council would be tasked with developing further regulations on issues such as the allowable amount of THC in edibles and testing standards.
“I’m not for [legalization] at all, but I understand that it’s coming, and we have to address the issue,” Dockter told Inforum. “I’m trying something different in government—we’re trying to be proactive and not be reactive.”
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.
Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.
Aside from the new broad legalization legislation, state lawmakers also recently introduced a separate bill to significantly expand the decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state. The proposal, which was filed last week, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.
Read the North Dakota cannabis legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.