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.
House Lawmakers Caution Key Senate Chairman Not To Overhaul Marijuana Banking Bill
The sponsors of a House-passed bill that would allow banks to service marijuana businesses sent a letter to a key Senate committee chairman on Tuesday, imploring him to advance the legislation despite his reservations about broader cannabis reform.
In the letter to Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID), the proposal’s original sponsors thanked him for recognizing the public safety risks associated with preventing banks for working with state-legal cannabis businesses, forcing them to operate on a largely cash-only basis. But they urged caution as it concerns changes he floated to the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.
Crapo has said that while he’s sympathetic to the situation financial institutions have been placed in, given conflicting state and federal marijuana laws, he would like to see revisions, such as only permitting banks to accept marijuana clients that sell products with a maximum two percent THC concentration—substantially lower than is marketed at most commercial retailers.
“The primary objective of our bill is to address public safety concerns resulting from marijuana-related transactions being forced outside the regulated banking system,” the House lawmakers wrote. “We welcome your ideas and solicitation for stakeholder feedback on how to improve this effort.”
“By bringing businesses out of the shadows and into the well-regulated banking system, our legislation will improve transparency and accountability and help law enforcement root out illegal transactions to prevent tax evasion, money laundering, and other white-collar crime. Most importantly, this will reduce the risk of violent crime in our communities as these businesses and their employees are currently targets for crime, robbery, assault and more by dealing in all cash.”
While the original sponsors—Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Denny Heck (D-WA) and Warren Davidson (R-OH)—said they “share your goal of preventing bad actors and cartels from accessing the financial system” and “agree there is a lack of federal research evaluating marijuana and its effects,” they voiced concerns about his proposed changes.
“However, we should exercise caution before adding limitations to the legislation’s safe harbor that impose unworkable burdens on financial institutions, or would jeopardize the larger, bipartisan effort to address public safety concerns associated with cash-only transactions,” they said.
“We respect your opposition to the legalization of marijuana at the federal level and in the state of Idaho. Many of the 321 Members of Congress who supported H.R. 1595 also oppose federal marijuana legalization. Our bill is about public safety. It does not change the legal status of marijuana and is focused solely on taking cash off the streets and aligning federal banking laws with the decisions states are already making regarding cannabis.”
The letter goes on to say Crapo’s willingness to address issues in the cannabis banking space “is a constructive step forward for our legislative effort and an important step toward making our communities safer and providing regulatory certainty to banks, credit unions, and other firms—many of which are not directly involved in the marijuana industry—which are trying to operate their businesses in a safe and legal way.”
“We stand ready to partner with you and your colleagues, and we look forward to continued progress on this issue,” they wrote.
Read the full marijuana banking letter below:
New Mexico Governor Says It’s ‘High Time’ To Legalize Marijuana
It’s “high time” to legalize marijuana, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in her State of the State address on Tuesday.
The governor, who formally included legalization in her 2020 agenda last week, said in the speech that cannabis reform represents a potentially lucrative economic opportunity that has the support of two-thirds of New Mexicans. With a short 30-day legislative agenda now officially underway, the state would likely become the twelfth state to legalize for adult use if the legislature follows through.
Watch Lujan Grisham’s marijuana comments in the video below:
“This is the fact: recreational cannabis can be the next frontier of our economic expansion,” Lujan Grisham said. “We can get in on the ground floor or we can try to play catch up—I know which one I prefer. And I know which one New Mexicans prefer.”
And I know what New Mexicans prefer: 75 percent of New Mexico supports the legalization of adult-use cannabis. Three of every 4 New Mexicans wants to realize the awesome economic potential of this industry, and I say we ought to give them the chance. #StateOfTheStateNM
— Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 21, 2020
The governor said legalization would be especially opportune for rural communities, and she cited one local CBD company as an example of how the industry is “creating more jobs and creating better-paying jobs.”
“For years now, the legislature has heard and debated recreational cannabis proposals. We’ve watched states come before us, we’ve watched them stumble in some areas, thrive in others… and every year we’ve said, ‘No, not yet, it’s not for us,’” she said. “Well, it’s easy to get to ‘no.’ It’s harder to stand up and create something good and new. And we’re ready for that.”
Let’s legalize recreational cannabis this year & use every tool in our economic toolbelt to create a thriving & safe new industry, giving New Mexicans yet another reason, yet another opportunity, to stay here & work & build a fulfilling 21st century career. #StateOfTheStateNM
— Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 21, 2020
The governor talked about how her appointed working group on marijuana reform spent months receiving input from community members and law enforcement to inform the specifics of her reform proposal.
That group “laid out a vision of a New Mexico where we use every tool in our economic toolbelt, strategically adopting best practices from the states that have come before us, creating a thriving and safe new industry employing thousands of New Mexicans and delivering hundreds of millions in revenue back to cities and counties and the state for public safety and health care,” she said.
“It’s high time we stopped holding ourselves and our economy back,” Lujan Grisham said, pausing to jokingly tell a lawmaker in the audience, “no laughing, representative.”
“Let’s get it done this year and give New Mexicans yet another reason, yet another opportunity, to stay here and work and build a fulfilling 21st century career,” she said.
The day after the governor called for legalization as part of her agenda for the year, a lawmaker filed a bill to accomplish that feat. Despite her support for the reform move, however, Lujan Grisham acknowledged in a recent interview that the path to passing legalization legislation is a “tough” one.
While there’s strong public support, as well as “some bipartisan support” in the legislature, she tried to temper expectations that legalization is inevitable during the short session.
“We want to create a legal, fair, productive mechanism for cannabis,” the governor said. “I feel good about where we are, but I know there are challenges in the legislature and particularly in the Senate, and we’re going to do our very best.”
While legalization didn’t come to fruition last session after a bill passed the House of Representatives and died in the Senate, the governor did sign a more limited proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession.
Several top elected officials have been calling for marijuana reform so far this year, with legislative sessions coming online shortly.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reiterated his commitment to legalizing cannabis in his State of the State address, and he included the proposal in a budget plan released on Tuesday. Rhode Island’s governor pitched a state-run legalization model in her budget proposal. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he wants to decriminalize cannabis possession and create a pathway for expungements in his annual address. And U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) pushed lawmakers to legalize cannabis to raise revenue to support a government employees retirement fund in his State of the Territory address.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New York Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization In New Budget Plan
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included marijuana legalization in his budget proposal on Tuesday, setting the stage for another reform push in the legislature as the 2020 session gets underway. The move comes as a new poll shows that voter support for ending cannabis prohibition is at its highest level ever in the state.
While Cuomo put a similar plan in his budget last year, he ultimately dropped it as it became clear that lawmakers could not come to an agreement on the finer points of legalization ahead of legislative deadlines. His administration is optimistic that this year will be different.
According to the new proposal, New York stands to receive $20 million in revenue for the 2021 fiscal year and $63 million in 2022, according to the governor’s projections. By 2025, the amount is expected to rise to $188 million.
Watch Cuomo discuss marijuana during his budget speech in the video below:
“Legalize adult use cannabis,” Cuomo said during his budget speech. “I believe it is best done in the budget. I said that last year. I believe the budget is the opportunity, frankly, to make some tough decisions and work through tough issues that without the budget can often languish, and I suggest that we get it done in the budget.”
“This year Governor Cuomo is proposing a comprehensive regulatory approach to legalize cannabis, creating a new Office of Cannabis Management to specialize in cannabis regulation—overseeing the medical, adult-use and hemp programs,” his office said in a press release. “The proposal will administer social equity licensing opportunities, develop an egalitarian adult-use market structure and facilitate market entry through access to capital, technical assistance and incubation of equity entrepreneurs.”
“The proposal will also correct past harms to individuals and communities that have disproportionally been impacted by prohibition. To safeguard public health, the proposal limits the sale of cannabis products to adults 21 and over and establishes stringent quality and safety controls including oversight over the packaging, labeling, advertising and testing of all cannabis products. These efforts will be done in coordination with neighboring states Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Governor will also propose creating a first of its kind Global Cannabis and Hemp Center for Science, Research and Education with SUNY and other expert partners.”
Under the proposal, there would be three levels of taxes. A 20 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sold by any entity to a retailer. Cultivators would be taxed at $1 per dry weight gram for flower, trim would be taxed at $0.25 per dry weight gram and wet cannabis would be taxed at $0.14 per gram. Local jurisdictions with a population of at least one million people that allow marijuana businesses to operate would receive revenue from a separate, two percent tax.
“The Budget regulates and controls the production, distribution, transportation, and sale of cannabis, cannabis related products and medical cannabis within the NYS, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety, and welfare and to promote social equity,” the proposal states.
The budget also calls for workforce increases at certain state agencies, including bolstering resources at the Division of Alcohol Beverage Control “to support the new Office of Cannabis Management (OCM).”
OCM will oversee a “first-in-nation comprehensive cannabis regulatory framework” that “centralizes all the licensing, enforcement and economic development functions in one entity.” It will “administer all licensing, production, and distribution of cannabis products in the adult-use, industrial, and medical cannabis markets,” according to the plan.
New York’s hemp regulators would also benefit from the budget proposal, with Cuomo calling for $1.1 million in “resources to support nine additional hemp oversight and inspection related staff.”
Cannabis reform has become a major issue for Cuomo, who only came to embrace legalization at the end of 2018 after he previously described marijuana as a “gateway drug.” Since then, he’s spent months negotiating with lawmakers about the specifics of an adult-use legalization bill, and he’s also helped arrange meetings with governors in the region to develop a plan for coordinated marijuana regulations.
While legalization didn’t come together last year, Cuomo did sign legislation expanding the state’s cannabis decriminalization policy and providing for expungements for those with prior marijuana convictions.
In his State of the State address earlier this month, the governor reiterated his commitment to legalizing marijuana in the Empire State, though he emphasized that the economic benefits “would be a hollow victory” if a legal system didn’t include social equity and restorative justice provisions.
The budget proposal aims to create a three-tier market structure—similar to how alcohol is distributed now— for the marijuana industry, and would generally prohibit vertical integration of businesses. That, along with licensing limits and supply management, are intended to “control market concentration and encourage social equity applicant participation,” the governor’s office said.
Technical assistance, training, loans and mentoring would be offered to marijuana business applicants that qualify under social and economic equity criteria.
Tax revenue would go toward implementation costs, traffic safety efforts and the social and economic equity plan, as well as substance misuse, harm reduction and mental health treatment and prevention programs, among other things.
Counties and cities with a population of 100,000 or more would be able to opt-out of allowing cannabis businesses in their jurisdictions.
Home cultivation of medical cannabis would be allowed, up to four plants per household, but recreational consumers would not be able to legally grow their own marijuana.
Cuomo’s proposal, or at least the idea of legalization in general, benefits from majority public support in the state, according to a poll that was released on Tuesday. The institute found that 58 percent of New Yorkers favor the policy change—the highest percentage reported in the state.
New York is one of several states where broad cannabis reform is expected to be taken up this year. In the Northeast alone, Rhode Island’s governor called for a state-run cannabis model in her budget plan, New Hampshire lawmakers plan to pursue non-commercial legalization and in New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election.
This story has been updated with further details about Cuomo’s proposal.