Massachusetts is leading a groundbreaking effort to ensure that people from communities that have historically been disproportionately targeted for enforcement under the “war on drugs” are able to participate in the newly legal marijuana industry.
The Bay State’s so-called “social equity program” is available to cannabis business license applicants who meet certain criteria for having been harmed by drug enforcement, and is meant to ease entry into a competitive industry that in other states has mostly been available to relatively privileged people with access to large amounts of capital.
The effort is the brainchild of Shaleen Title, a longtime drug policy reform activist who last year found herself named by the governor and other statewide elected officials as one of just five state regulatory commissioners responsible for implementing the cannabis legalization measure that Massachusetts voters approved in 2016.
Title’s appointment to the commission marked the first time an advocate who campaigned to enact legalization was made responsible for implementing it.
Since being formed less than a year ago, the Cannabis Control Commission on which she serves has begun issuing recreational marijuana cultivation and dispensary licenses, and is soon preparing to assume oversight of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry.
The voter-approved ballot measure that ended cannabis prohibition in the state contained unique language mandating that officials take steps to “promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.”
Title, who helped to craft that language, is now responsible for making good on it.
Participation in the social equity program is available to people who have a past drug conviction or are married to or the child of a person with a drug conviction. It is also open to residents of “areas of disproportionate impact” under the drug war and whose income is sufficiently low. Those who qualify can receive training and technical assistance in employee recruitment and management, accounting, tax compliance, raising capital and other areas.
Regulators also launched a separate economic empowerment program that gave priority application review status to businesses that met criteria such as majority ownership of people of color or a majority of whose employees have drug convictions.
At a recent meeting of the commission, Title laid into municipalities that, in her view, are requiring marijuana business license seekers to pay excessive fees, a situation which she says creates “obstacles to the commission’s mission statement, which is to safely, equitably and productively implement the law.”
“And we already know that when barriers to entry are too high at the local level we end up with a market that is slow to start up and has a striking lack of diversity,” she said.
This week, Title rejected an invitation to speak at the upcoming Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo, an event she helped to boycott last year after it invited Trump ally Roger Stone as a keynote speaker.
In this interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length, Title talks about why she turned down the chance to give conference organizers a piece of her mind on stage and shares her broader thoughts about how the effort to implement legalization equitably is going.
(Full disclosure: Title is a friend of the author, and the two co-founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority.)
Tom Angell: Why was it so important for you to make sure the equity program was a key part of the legalization launch in Massachusetts?
Shaleen Title: It’s clear from looking at the rollout of other states – many of which I was involved in – you can’t just hope for fairness and inclusion and have it happen. Combined with keeping small entrepreneurs in mind with all of our decision-making, creating a formal equity program was a way to intentionally connect employees and business owners from disproportionately harmed communities with the resources they need to thrive.
Angell: Were there any challenges in convincing your fellow commissioners or other stakeholders to adopt the equity program?
Title: All of my fellow commissioners are as committed to equity as I am, so I don’t recall needing to convincing anyone; however, the main challenge has been to structure the program so that it has a real impact rather than being lip service. That entails careful data collection and evaluation, flexible decision-making and deliberate outreach. It’s also important to pay special attention to funding for restorative justice as well as fairness at the local level, both of which are already addressed in the law.
Angell: Were you inspired by similar efforts in other states or municipalities? What lessons from those other programs did you incorporate in designing the Bay State’s effort?
Title: We looked at all the other efforts to prioritize equity in other jurisdictions and took various elements.
The approach of designating geographic areas based on arrest rates and specifying a range of years to account for gentrification was inspired by Oakland. The required diversity plan and community impact plan for all applicants were inspired by Pennsylvania. Other elements, like the economic empowerment priority and the strict accountability for collecting and reporting data, were required by the legislature.
Finally, we adopted certain elements based on our own discussions among the commissioners, including focusing primarily on technical assistance and directly including people with drug convictions and people whose parents or spouses have drug convictions. Utilizing public comment opportunities, outreach events, and the talented staff we’ve hired, we took input directly from the communities we aim to benefit and used it as the basis for those decisions.
Angell: How will you measure whether the equity program is living up to the goals you set out? And what does the initial data show so far?
Title: We are very specific about measuring the impact of all of our programs, but particularly the social equity program given that leaders from other states are watching it closely. In addition to the number and percentage of licenses issued to Economic Empowerment applicants and Social Equity Program participants, we are measuring how many licenses are issued to people of color, women, veterans, farmers and people with drug convictions, and how many jobs in the adult-use cannabis industry are held by those groups. We’re also tracking how many jobs are being created in geographic areas of disproportionate impact and how many people are being trained through the Social Equity Program.
So far, only three economic empowerment applicants out of 123 have submitted all four packets of the application. The preliminary data from a recent survey shows that the reasons they have not applied, in order, are difficulty raising funds or capital, business concepts and plans still in development and difficulty obtaining approval from a city or town.
So we are seeking to address these challenges.
Angell: Some people might feel that they are left out of an early boost to getting a license because they don’t have a criminal record or aren’t from communities where the drug war has been heavily waged. How would you respond to those people?
Title: In every decision we make, we have prioritized the inclusion of people from all backgrounds and businesses of all sizes. I would encourage them to submit an application and note that all applications are evaluated on their own merits as suitable or not suitable, rather than having different applicants compete against each other for a limited number of licenses. There are no quotas here.
Angell: There have been concerns raised recently, by the commission and some state lawmakers, that municipalities are breaking state law by requiring excessive payments from businesses seeking marijuana licenses. Beyond the simple question about whether these arrangements violate current policy, do you see them as an impediment to ensuring equity in the industry for entrepreneurs who aren’t extremely well capitalized?
Title: Absolutely. Although some municipalities are ignoring it, the law puts limitations in place on how much money it can accept from an applicant. It makes it crystal clear that municipalities may not sell their approval to the highest bidder. If such unlawful arrangements are permitted, that is an invitation to big marijuana companies to come in to a city or town and knock the smaller competition out through a payoff. At that point, only that big company would have the required local approval and the smaller companies wouldn’t even have the chance to apply at the state level. That’s not okay. It’s a direct obstacle to our overall goal of a fair industry.
At our next meeting, the Commission will be discussing whether to review these agreements and ensure they are compliant with the law before issuing a license—a policy I support.
Angell: What are some upcoming milestones that people who are interested in following the roll-out of the equity program should be watching for?
Title: The Commission is seeking trainers who are able to provide training to equity applicants. The training is divided into four tracks: entrepreneurial, entry-level or reentry-level, core (management) and ancillary. If your organization or business is qualified to provide such training, you must respond to our RFQ by September 7. The executive director of the Commission and I recently held a Facebook Live chat explaining the process. I personally hope to see a combination of applicants who are experienced at working with state governments and applicants who have never responded to a state RFP or RFQ before.
After that, the next step will be to open our applications to people eligible for the program. People who are interested in receiving updates about the social equity program can learn more and sign up for our email list.
Angell: Shifting gears, last year you helped lead a pushback against a cannabis conference that invited Trump ally Roger Stone as a keynote speaker, which ultimately led to him being dis-invited from the event following initial resistance from the organizers. This year, they invited you to be a keynote speaker, but you turned them down. Why was it important to organize around the Stone invitation last year, and why did you reject the invite for you to speak this year?
Title: I mean, it’s a nonstarter for me to support a conference that somehow thought it was a good idea to honor a person who openly referred to black colleagues as “stupid Negroes” and female colleagues as “c*nts.” Isn’t that common sense? That would go for any conference, but last year many of us felt it was particularly important to organize against this one in particular because this is a conference about cannabis, whose legal status has until recently been used as a tool of oppression.
Even worse than their invitation was their mewling, reflexive defense of their decision after we raised concerns. Eventually, they dropped him when enough sponsors threatened to withdraw, but given that the company never took any responsibility and dismissed the entire conversation as a “distraction,” I had zero interest in letting them use my name to promote their conference this year.
Angell: Did you consider accepting the speaking invitation and giving the organizers a piece of your mind on stage instead of turning them down?
Title: Well, I’m trying to get the marijuana businesses open in Massachusetts, so my time is limited. I made some suggestions to the conference as to steps they might take if they are sincere about moving forward constructively; that’s all the time I had. I’m grateful for opportunities to participate in events to help keep the public informed, and I want to devote my time and support to those events that promote diversity and put in the work in terms of giving back and community outreach.