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.
North Dakota Marijuana Activists Turn Hopes To 2020 Ballot Measure Following Legislative Defeat
Despite the narrow defeat on Wednesday of a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, activists in North Dakota say they are looking ahead to 2020, when they’ll try to push for broader cannabis legalization through a ballot measure.
The activist group Legalize ND stated their intentions to take the issue to voters in the upcoming general election in a Facebook post following the legislation’s failure.
“The legislature has proven they have 0 interest in reform, and that they are unwilling to live by their pledge to pass decriminalization as an alternative to full legalization,” the post said.
The legislation, supported by Gov. Doug Burgum (R), would have removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce or two mature plants. The current misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine would have been replaced with a non-criminal offense that carried a $200 fine. The bill also set new penalties for possession of paraphernalia including pipes, containers or growing tools as a non-criminal offense with a $100 fine.
Instead, members of the House voted the measure down 43-47, with four abstentions.
Activists with Legalize ND and Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who introduced the failed decriminalization bill, did not return calls from from Marijuana Moment seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the House approved separate legislation Monday that would add new conditions for which residents can use medical cannabis, increase the number of professionals who can recommend its use and expand the allowed methods of consumption. The House also voted to allow cancer patients to have higher amounts of medical marijuana.
North Dakota’s first medical cannabis dispensary is set to open next week in Fargo, the Associated Press reported. Acreage Holdings will open a facility called The Botanist in Bismark.
In 2018, North Dakota voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure, which would have set no limit on the amount of the drug that people could possess or cultivate. Two years earlier, voters approved a separate measure allowing medical cannabis in the state.
North Dakota officials hope to have dispensaries up and running in the state’s eight major cities by fall.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Marijuana Companies Urged Governor To Ban Cannabis Home Cultivation, Document Shows
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took marijuana reform supporters by pleasant surprise when he endorsed legalization last year after previously calling cannabis a “gateway drug” that should remain prohibited. But for advocates, there was at least one major disappointment in store when he got around to revealing the details of his plan: the proposal, unveiled as part of his budget last month, would ultimately include a ban on home cultivation of recreational marijuana.
Home growing—seen by many as a commonsense policy that ensures access to cannabis for individuals who can’t afford retail prices, live too far from a dispensary or just want to flex their green thumbs—has been a feature of almost all legal adult-use marijuana systems operating in the U.S., with the exception of Washington State’s. So what’s behind the New York governor’s opposition to letting adults cultivate their own crops?
It could be that Cuomo took a page from the commercial cannabis industry. Literally.
Roughly a month before the governor announced the details of his legalization proposal, a New York-based marijuana business association—led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers—sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office in the interest of offering “some thoughts on various issues associated with a transition from medical to adult-use.”
One of those thoughts centered on the businesses’ desire to prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana.
Politico first reported the existence of the document, created by New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), in December. This month, Marijuana Moment obtained the full 29-page memo through a state freedom of information law request.
There are some broad recommendations that most legalization supporters would take no issue with, such as encouraging individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry and leveraging partnerships to expand research into medical cannabis.
But a chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” makes very specific—and, in the eyes of advocates, misleading—arguments against allowing marijuana cultivation for personal use.
The group recognized that people want home cultivation because of “currently high prices of medical marijuana” or because they see it as an “individual civil liberty.” But according to NYMCIA, home cultivation “creates a significant public safety and black market risk.”
The industry organization listed five claims to support that argument:
1. Home grow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.
2. Home grow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.
3. Home grow will undermine the state’s harm reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.
4. Home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and and labeled correctly.
5. Home grow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.
Per that last point, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that New York state would miss out on some sales tax revenue if residents decided to grow their own plants. But the other side of that dilemma is that it’d likely mean missed profits for cannabis businesses, including those affiliated with NYMCIA.
“From our perspective, it’s really hard to see any real reason—other than individual and corporate greed—to be against home cultivation at this point,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “There’s not a lot of rational concerns when it comes to allowing a limited amount of plants for an individual to grow at home.”
Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also pushed back against NYMCIA’s claim that a home grow option would make eliminating the illicit market “impossible.”
It’s the “fallacy of ‘The Fallacy of Home Grow,'” as she put it. It would make more sense to attribute difficulties reducing illicit market sales to state tax rates on retail cannabis, she said in a phone interview.
“It’s really disingenuous to try to say that it would not be possible to eliminate the illicit market if we allow for home grow. That certainly hasn’t been the experience of other states that allow home grow.”
Moreover, NYMCIA’s position is not consistent with that of other marijuana industry groups such as the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which argues that allowing home growing can actually benefit businesses.
“NCIA does not oppose limited home cultivation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the group, said in an email. “In fact, it can act as an incubator for people to develop skills which can be used in the legal cannabis industry, which benefits businesses as well as individuals looking to enter the market. Much like home brewing has helped spur interest the craft beer market, limited home cannabis cultivation can do the same in legal states.”
Who is involved in NYMCIA and why do they want to ban home cultivation?
Marijuana companies Columbia Care, Etain, PharmaCann, The Botanist and Acreage NY, Vireo Health and MedMen were all listed as members of NYMCIA in the memo to Cuomo’s office. (MedMen later acquired PharmaCann, and more recently, NYMCIA urged MedMen to leave the association amid a controversy over racist remarks allegedly made by the company’s executives).
(A separate controversy previously enveloped Columbia Care, which owns dispensaries and grow facilities in multiple states, after its Massachusetts-based subsidiary, Patriot Care, was discovered to be advocating against letting certain people with past drug convictions work in the legal cannabis industry).
Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm that Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner joined as a board member, declined to comment for this story through a public relations firm that represents the company.
A MedMen spokesperson said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that it “respects the right of those who choose to cultivate cannabis for their personal use,” but did not respond to specific questions about the company’s involvement in drafting the policy statement that urged New York officials to continue prohibiting such activity.
Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, told Marijuana Moment that the document “was our industry association’s first go at formulating some broad policy positions” prior to meeting with the governor’s office and that the company’s “position on home grow is far more nuanced than a simple approve/oppose.”
“Those policy points you have are sound, but our positions have evolved (and will continue to do so) as we’ve had a chance to socialize these concepts” with other stakeholders, Unruh said. He argued that New York has superior quality control standards in place for medical cannabis and that while the company recognizes “the nature and value of civil liberty” of home cultivation, allowing it would pose public health risks.
But ultimately, “Our position is this: We support the governor’s homegrow proposal,” he wrote in an email.
While recommending that lawmakers ban personal cultivation of recreational marijuana, Cuomo did include a home grow option for medical cannabis patients in his budget plan.
(Full disclosure: Several members of the companies involved in NYMCIA support Marijuana Moment through monthly Patreon pledges, or have in the past.)
Cannabis reform advocates aren’t buying NYMCIA’s claims.
It is quite obvious that NYMCIA’s affiliates have a financial stake in the shape of whatever marijuana law eventually emerges from the New York legislature. And their opposition to a home grow option is a point of concern for advocacy groups.
“[T]o advocate against home cultivation given all we know about how it works in practice from the industry side really just is kind of despicable and illustrates their greed, that they’re willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the slightest increase in their profits,” NORML’s Altieri said.
The association’s recommendation also runs counter to what Marijuana Moment was previously told by the vice president of corporate communications for Vireo Health, Albe Zakes.
Asked about the memo following the initial Politico report that only vaguely described the document, Zakes wrote in an email that “our CEO and COO assured me that we’ve never lobbied against home grow and in fact support home grow as part of larger legislation, as long as it is regulated and controlled in a responsible manner, the same way medical or recreational markets would be, in order to protect consumers.”
(Vireo CEO Aaron Hoffnung signed an Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure form for NYMCIA last year as one of the association’s directors.)
Marijuana Moment sent a follow-up request for comment after obtaining the policy statement through the public records request, but Zakes said the he was unable to reach the company’s executives and so Vireo would have to decline the opportunity for further comment.
Advocates question whether NYMCIA leveraged its influence for the right reasons.
Is the worry really that a home cultivation policy would sustain an illicit market or complicate law enforcement activities in New York? Are concerns about the public health impact genuine? Or is it that cannabis businesses want the entire market to themselves?
“We need to make sure that we have a check on the potential greed of the industry that we can already see in these early stages based on this advocacy document,” Altieri said. “We need to make sure that the market in New York not only begins to address all the harms caused by the war on cannabis but also is oriented toward the consumer and not large industry interests.”
“Banning home cultivation benefits no one but corporations and large industry groups.”
Despite Cuomo including the home grow ban in his proposal, it seems that advocates may get more time to voice their concerns about the policy. Some leading lawmakers such as Senate President Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) are increasingly doubtful that marijuana reform will make it into the final state budget, meaning that negotiations on separate legalization legislation could end up resulting in a law that allows consumers to grow their own cannabis.
Marijuana Moment reached out to NYMCIA itself, Cuomo’s office, Etain and Columbia Care for comment, but representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries by the time of publication.
Read the full NYMCIA policy statement, including the section on home cultivation, below:
New York Medical Cannabis I… by on Scribd
Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state on Thursday.
The legislation, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess, purchase and gift up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants (three of which could be mature), cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in a 10-9 vote.
A governor-appointed commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Possession and home cultivation would be legal 60 days after the bill passes, and the first retail licenses would be issued in November 2020.
The bill also provides for the expungement of prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses that were made legal.
This is the first time that the committee has advanced such legislation, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Last year, the panel rejected a similar proposal, but the full House voted to overturn that recommendation and then it passed an amended version of the bill that excluded commercial sales. It later died before making its way to the Senate, however.
While some committee members expressed reservations about the health impacts of marijuana and raised doubts about revenue from legal sales, others like Rep. Will Pearson (D) said such concerns are overblown and that the time to legalize “was yesterday—beyond yesterday.”
Pearson adds health effects of marijuana should not be related to alcohol, but rather compared with coffee and sugar.
Also says NH is behind curve. “The time to do this was yesterday – beyond yesterday.” #nhpolitics
— Ethan DeWitt (@edewittNH) February 21, 2019
“We applaud the committee for recognizing that marijuana prohibition is an outdated and increasingly unpopular policy that has failed to accomplish its public health and safety objectives,” Matt Simon, New England political director at MPP, said in a press release. “It’s time for New Hampshire to adopt a more sensible system in which cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older and regulated in order to protect consumers and the public.”
“We are very pleased that the committee tasked with overseeing criminal justice and public safety has recommended the passage of this legislation,” he said. “Passage of this bill would be terrible news for illicit drug dealers and good news for proponents of smarter, more effective drug policies.”
Gov. Chris Sununu (R) opposes legalizing cannabis, but House Speaker Steve Shurtleff has said he believes there are enough votes in his chamber, and perhaps also in the Senate, to override a potential veto.
Meanwhile, marijuana legislation is moving through legislatures all across the U.S.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
We followed more than 900 pieces of cannabis legislation in 2018. Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
During the last week alone, a Vermont Senate committee approved a bill to allow cannabis sales, the West Virginia House passed a piece of marijuana banking legislation and a Missouri House committee cleared a bill to provide for the expungement of certain marijuana convictions. On Wednesday, North Dakota’s House narrowly rejected cannabis decriminalization legislation.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.