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Massachusetts Marijuana Regulator Talks Social Equity And The Presidential Election

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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?

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.

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kaisha-Dyan McMillan is an Oakland-based freelance copywriter and journalist specializing in the cannabis industry. Her work has also appeared in DOPE Magazine, Weedguide.com and Oakland Magazine.

Politics

Federal Court Dismisses Suit Against DEA Over Marijuana Growing Applications

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A federal court dismissed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday after determining that the agency had fulfilled a requirement to process applications for research-grade marijuana manufacturers.

DEA was sued in June after declining to act on the more than two dozen applications that it received for approval to cultivate cannabis for research purposes. It’s been more than three years since the agency first announced it was opening the process to consider additional producers.

The suit, brought by the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi—currently the only facility that’s federally authorized to cultivate the plant—is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.

Indeed, that’s a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered DEA to respond to the legal challenge within 30 days—and as that deadline approached in August, the agency published a notice in the Federal Register stating that it was taking steps to approve the pending applications.

Due to the volume of the applications, DEA said it would have to develop alternative rules to process them. And on Friday the court said that DEA had fulfilled its obligations and that the suit “is now moot.” While no applications have been approved to date, there’s a public comment period that will last until October 28 and then the agency will have an additional 90 days to take action on the inquiries.

“The Court dismissed our case because, according to the Court, DEA gave us the relief we had requested,” attorney Matt Zorn, who was involved in the suit, told Marijuana Moment. “Last week, on October 11, DEA published a correction to the notice it had previously published on August 26, two days before it had to respond to the Court’s order. The Court said this second notice meant there was nothing more the Court could give us.”

“The Court also declined to maintain jurisdiction over the case, because it did not find a history of chronic delay or bad faith in the record,” Zorn said. “But it also indicated that we could return to court if DEA significantly delays going forward.”

Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, said that despite the case being dismissed, it “moved the ball forward for everyone.”

“We would have liked to take the case one step further to ensure that all 33 applications are processed promptly—protecting the health and welfare of our nation’s medically ill patients ought to be a national priority for this administration,” she said. “By delaying these 33 applications, the administration has prevented our US scientists from investigating the clinical efficacy of real-world cannabis to treat combat veterans with PTSD. Fortunately, the Court’s order today allows us to return to court for additional relief if Trump’s DOJ/DEA continues to violate the law and put public health at risk through delay or otherwise.”

In a separate case in May, another federal court ordered DEA to “promptly” consider applications to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act.

Read the appeals court’s ruling on the DEA marijuana application case below: 

DEA court ruling by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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Photo elements courtesy of rawpixel and Philip Steffan.

 

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Former VA Secretary Who Oversaw Marijuana Research Blockade Now Backs Cannabis Studies For Veterans

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Former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin is officially on board with having the department research medical marijuana—a development that comes a year after he was in a position to actually make that happen.

In an interview with Task & Purpose that was published on Thursday, Shulkin said that “the time is now” for VA to facilitate studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.

“I believe that the VA should be involved in research on anything that could potentially help veterans and improve their health and well-being,” he said.

That appears to represent a notable departure from the position he held while he headed the department.

For example, VA under his leadership refused to provide assistance to an Arizona-based research facility that was soliciting veterans to participate in a federally approved clinical trial looking at the potential benefits of cannabis in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects,” a VA official told Air Force Times in 2017. “The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for her study.”

But according to the Brookings Institute, that’s not an accurate assessment because “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”

While the former secretary still said during this latest interview that congressional action is necessary to prompt VA research efforts, he seems to have become decidedly more vocal about the importance of such studies as compared to his time in office.

“In particular, with the VA’s focus on suicide as the top priority, people just don’t take their lives because of no reason,” he said. “They take their lives, often because of issues related to chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, and there is growing evidence that medical marijuana—I’m not talking about recreational marijuana—but properly prescribed, may have some real benefits in anxiety improvement, in pain management, and potentially, in the issue of substance abuse.”

“And therefore, I believe it’s extremely appropriate for VA to be researching and developing therapies that can help veterans, particularly in areas where we don’t have enough good therapies or answers,” he said.

Task & Purpose followed up to ask about potential obstacles such to having VA conduct research into the issue, and Shulkin said that because marijuana is a federally controlled substance, “the challenge of doing research with the regulations, and the hoops that you have to go through, are making it too difficult to do for many of the researchers.”

“I do think that the way forward is a legislative solution, much of what VA responds to are changes in the law, where medical research for veterans in this area could be streamlined and clarity around what regulations and rules need to be followed to be able to do this research, as well as guidance about the type of research that can and should be done, which reports back to Congress.”

He added that he doesn’t anticipate that President Trump would resist legislation empowering VA to study marijuana for veterans.

Brad Burge, director of strategic communication at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the group behind the study into cannabis for PTSD, told Marijuana Moment that they are “pleased that Shulkin has now expressed his support for medical marijuana research, even though that support would have been much more valuable when he was still in office.”

“Nevertheless we are looking forward to the VA’s support of marijuana research and see Shulkin’s change of stance as a promising sign for veterans suffering from PTSD,” Burge said.

It wasn’t just that Shulkin’s VA put up roadblocks to cannabis research, he also resisted providing veterans with access to marijuana by declining to change internal VA policy that could empower its doctors to issue recommendations in states where it’s legal.

The reasoning, he said in 2017, is that it’s “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal” because of federal law. But advocates argued that the only thing standing in the way of VA cannabis research is VA policy itself, which Shulkin could have amended.

Getting a VA cannabis reform bill passed as the former official is now recommending has already proved difficult this year, with current VA officials voicing opposition during a congressional committee hearing in June to modest proposals such as allowing their doctors to recommend cannabis or even surveying veterans about their marijuana use.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that same month that he pulled an appropriations amendment to allow for VA marijuana recommendations from floor consideration partly because of opposition from the department.

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Mexican Committees Unveil Marijuana Legalization Bill Ahead Of Supreme Court Deadline

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Several Mexican Senate committees unveiled draft legislation late on Thursday to legalize marijuana.

Leaders of the Health, Justice, Public Security and Legislative Studies Committees announced last week that they would remain in permanent session to finalize the legalization bill ahead of a coming Supreme Court deadline.

The court determined last year that the country’s ban on personal cannabis consumption and cultivation is unconstitutional, though lawmakers now want to go even further by legalizing commercial production and sales.

The committees are expected to formally vote on the legislation in the coming days, after which point it will head to the full Senate and then the Chamber of Deputies. Leaders said a vote in the legislature could occur before the end of the month, though it’s possible they could ask the Supreme Court for a deadline extension.

Cåñamo México first reported on the 42-page draft proposal on Friday.

Here are some of the key provisions, according to a translation: 

—Adults 18 and older can possess cannabis for personal use, cultivate up to four plants and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers.

—An independent body called the “Cannabis Institute” would be charged with issuing licenses, setting potency limits and monitoring the implementation of the law, among other responsibilities.

—Low-income individuals, small farmers and indigenous people would have licensing priority.

—Strict restrictions would be imposed on cannabis packaging. That includes requiring nondescript, standardized containers that do not feature depictions of real or fictional people or testimonials.

—Marijuana can only be consumed in private spaces.

—Only medical cannabis patients would be allowed to purchase infused edibles and beverages.

—Unregistered seeds or plants would be subject to forfeiture.

—No pesticides could be used on cannabis plants.

The bill seeks to “improve the living conditions of people living in the United Mexican States, combat the consequences of the problematic use of cannabis and reduce the crime incidence linked to drug trafficking [while] promoting peace, the security and well-being of individuals and communities,” according to the text.

Sen. Julio Menchaca Salazar, head of the Justice Committee, said in a tweet that “we are legislating to regulate the illicit market of the #marihuana and decrease the crime incidence linked to the #narcotrĂĄfico, promoting peace and security for all Mexicans.”

Lawmakers have said that the legislation is largely based on a proposal that Interior Secretary Olga SĂĄnchez Cordero filed last year while still serving as a senator, but the committees are also merging in provisions from among more than a dozen other marijuana reform bills that since have been introduced.

“They all have something good that we can be translating into law,” Menchaca Salazar, who is a member of the ruling MORENA party, said.

Debate on the measure will also be informed by findings from a series of events the Senate organized to gather public input on marijuana legalization. That includes a panel led by a former White House drug czar, who stressed the need for “robust regulations” of a legal cannabis market.

The leader of the MORENA party in the Senate, Sen. Ricardo Monreal, said earlier this month that the chamber was set to vote on a legalization bill ahead of the October 24 deadline.

“It will undoubtedly be a great discussion with the elements we have and also with all the willingness to incorporate the opinions of legislators, but it would come out this month, there are the conditions for that to be,” Menchaca Salazar said.

Read the full text of the Mexican committees’ marijuana legalization proposal below: 

Predictamen para crear la ‘… by Tonalidades Verde on Scribd

This story is developing and will be updated.

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