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.
Congressional Committee Asks JUUL For Documents On Marijuana Partnerships
Is the e-cigarette company JUUL planning on expanding its stake in the marijuana industry?
That’s one question the chair of a congressional subcommittee asked the company in a letter concerning JUUL’s role in the “youth e-cigarette epidemic” earlier this month.
Lawmakers have frequently criticized JUUL for making products—specifically flavored e-cigarette cartridges—that allegedly appeal to young people at a time when rates of cigarette use are steadily declining. But while JUUL was developed by the cannabis vaporizer company PAX, it hasn’t announced plans to further partner with marijuana companies.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, apparently sees the possibility on the horizon, though.
In a letter sent to JUUL on June 7, the congressman said his panel was investigating youth e-cigarette usage and, specifically, how the company’s marketing tactics might be exacerbating the issue. He requested documents on everything from clinical trials on how JUUL devices divert people away from traditional cigarettes to communications on the company’s rationale for the nicotine concentration of JUUL pods.
Tucked within the extensive request is a question about potential marijuana partnerships. Krishnamoorthi asked for:
“All documents, including memoranda and communications, referring or relating to proposals, plans, and/or intended partnerships or collaborations between JUUL and any cannabis-related companies, including but not limited to Cronos Group.”
It’s not clear where the Cronos-specific mention comes from, but the company has perviously caught the interest of the tobacco industry. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, invested almost $2 billion in the Canada-based cannabis company in December. Two weeks later, Altria invested $13 billion in JUUL.
Marijuana Moment reached out to JUUL, Cronos and Krishnamoorthi’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
If a partnership does emerge, it would likely be met with some controversy, as opponents and proponents of marijuana reform alike have long expressed concern that the tobacco industry would take over the cannabis market and commercialize it in a way that mirrors how it peddled cigarettes.
Of course, given that tobacco use is declining and tobacco companies generally have the infrastructure that would make a pivot to cannabis relatively simple, such a partnership would not be especially surprising.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made the case several times that tobacco farmers in his state could leverage the federal legalization of industrial hemp and its derivatives by growing the crop to offset profit losses from declining tobacco sales.
Read Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s full letter to JUUL below:
2019-06-07.Krishnamoorthi t… by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
New York Lawmakers Might Actually Vote On Marijuana Legalization This Week
With just days left before the end of the legislative session, efforts to legalize marijuana in New York have been revived, with a possible vote this coming week.
Though momentum to pass a legalization measure seemed to largely die off after lawmakers in neighboring New Jersey announced they wouldn’t move forward with plans to end cannabis prohibition through the legislature, advocates are increasingly optimistic that a deal in the Empire State is imminent.
Democratic members in both the Senate and Assembly held conferences last week to discuss details of the legislation. Spectrum News reported that the meetings went well, with members indicating that there’s support for the measure.
That’s just one of several positive signs that a proposal many observers thought was dead for the year has new life.
On Saturday and Sunday, staff for legislative leaders from both chambers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) met to negotiate provisions of a revised legalization plan.
Source says three way talks on marijuana taking place today in Albany among staff of two legislative leaders and @NYGovCuomo
Final bill expected to be posted Sunday night
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 15, 2019
On Wednesday, an earlier Senate version of the bill was assigned “same as” status in the Assembly version. That means the current proposals in each chamber lined up with identical language and is considered to be an indicator that the legislation could pass.
— Mike Baggerman (@MikeBaggerman) June 14, 2019
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said on Friday that his party has yet to determine whether they’ll bring the bill to the floor, but he added that “I think there is support in the conference.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters his conference hasn't made a decision yet on whether to put a bill legalizing marijuana on the floor for a vote.
"We haven't made a final decision yet, but I think there is support in the conference," he said.
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) June 14, 2019
He also characterized the window of time until the end of the session on Wednesday as “an eternity.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says there is no final determination on a marijuana legalization bill, but notes there is “an eternity” between now and the end of session on Wednesday.
— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) June 14, 2019
Cuomo, who said late last month that passing legalization remains a top 10 priority, has said that lawmakers who fail to approve items on his agenda, including ending cannabis prohibition, “should all be primaried, because that is a failure of a basic progressive agenda.”
On the flip side, the chairman of New York’s Democratic Party said earlier this month that if the Senate approves the legalization bill, they run to risk of alienating voters in certain areas such as Long Island and upstate New York. But that argument neglects to account for recent polling that shows voters in those regions strongly support legalization.
Notably, the measure’s most vocal opponents with the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been sending email blasts in recent days urging their supports to call senators and voice opposition to the bill, giving the impression that the group is anticipating a vote.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), sponsor of the legalization legislation, seemed to confirm that suspicion on Friday, stating that after “conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory.”
.@CPeoplesStokes on status of marijuana legislation: "After conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory."
— Yancey Roy (@YanceyRoy) June 14, 2019
But despite that confidence, the fate of legalization in New York remains murky. An analysis earlier this month found that legalization was two votes short of a needed majority in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a number of key elected officials are calling on the governor and lawmakers to not only push legalization over the finish line but to include certain key provisions in the final legislation.
State Attorney General Letitia James (D) sent a letter urging that the bill expunge prior cannabis records.
“Before we create a booming business for legal marijuana, we must provide relief to those individuals that have paid much more to society than what was due,” she wrote.
Legalizing marijuana is a racial & criminal justice imperative. If we truly want a more fair system, we must ensure that those who were unjustly harmed be given a clean slate.
That means providing full expungement for those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses. https://t.co/jt8lEkrnz7
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) June 16, 2019
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a 2020 presidential candidate, also pushed for expungements and said in a Twitter thread that legalization should “empower local business and not big corporations.”
With only a few days left this session in Albany, we have a small window to legalize marijuana the RIGHT way.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
We can right the wrongs of the past. We can bring fairness to communities of color. We can empower local business and not big corporations.
We have to keep the focus and bring this home.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
And the Manhattan and Albany County district attorneys co-authored an op-ed calling leaders to “correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing” legalization.
DA Vance, @AlbanyCountyDA: "In the final days of session, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators must correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing the Marijuana Revenue and Taxation Act." #MarijuanaJustice ⚖️ @DrugPolicyOrg https://t.co/ESuMjAR03q
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) June 14, 2019
The Buffalo News reported on Sunday afternoon that there were still a number of outstanding issues left to be settled between lawmakers, including whether or not home cultivation of cannabis would be allowed, how tax revenue would be allocated and whether localities would have to proactively opt in to allowing marijuana businesses or if there would instead be an opt out provision for those wanting to ban cannabis commerce.
Marijuana Update: Talks continue in Albany at this hour, with one insider describing it’s chances as “50/50.”
At issue is where the revenue from legalization would go.
Source says @NYGovCuomo and legislature disagree on who is most in need.
Others say Cuomo wants his bill only.
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 17, 2019
The session ends on Wednesday, and so far no vote has been scheduled in either chamber.
Meanwhile, lawmakers early on Monday morning filed what appears to be backup legislation to expand the decriminalization of marijuana and to provide a process to expunge or vacate prior cannabis convictions. And others support putting legalization on the ballot through a referendum that voters can decide on.
The situation is very fluid, and over the next few days advocates will be stepping up the push for action in Albany. On Sunday, they held a rally outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office.
How many NY dads have been criminalized & separated from kids bc of broken pot laws?
— VOCAL-NY (@VOCALNewYork) June 16, 2019
This post has been updated to include the latest developments as well as comment from a number of elected officials.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program
The governor of Texas signed a bill into law on Friday that significantly expands the state’s medical cannabis program.
The legislation, which was overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers last month, adds multiple medical conditions to the list of disorders that qualify patients of low-THC marijuana. Currently only patients with intractable epilepsy qualify under the CBD-focused program.
New qualifying conditions include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, autism, spasticity and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the bill with little fanfare.
Reform advocates said the legislation is a big step in the right direction, even though it doesn’t go as far as they’d hoped. A 0.5 THC cap on marijuana products remained in the bill, for example, and a section that would have established a research program to study the therapeutic potential of cannabis was removed.
“Cannabis is effective medicine for many patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “HB 3703 represents a positive step toward a functional medical cannabis program, but sadly, it still leaves behind millions of Texas families that could benefit from legal access.”
Also this legislative session, the House of Representatives approved bills to more comprehensively expand the medical cannabis program and to decriminalize marijuana possession, but they died in the Senate.
Abbott signed a hemp legalization bill earlier this week.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.