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Washington Governor Signs Bill To Diversify State’s Marijuana Industry

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In an effort to ensure the spoils of marijuana legalization are available to everyone, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill on Tuesday to allow state regulators to funnel unused marijuana business licenses to people from communities that have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

The legislation came at the request of state cannabis regulators, who have pointed out that Washington’s legalization law, which voters approved in 2012, failed to include any provisions aimed at addressing past prohibition harms.

The new law signed by Inslee aims to diversify the industry by issuing more business licenses to people negatively affected by drug law enforcement and providing them with technical assistance to get their companies off the ground. It creates a state Marijuana Equity Task Force and allows the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to grant forfeited, canceled, revoked or otherwise unissued marijuana business licenses to qualified equity applicants.

“HB 2870 creates a new social equity program that provides business opportunities to people from disproportionately-harmed communities so they can benefit economically from the cannabis industry and become a cannabis retailer,” Inslee said in a statement that his office shared with Marijuana Moment.

According to the ACLU, black people in Washington State were roughly four times more likely to be arrested on cannabis charges prior to legalization than were white people, despite similar rates of use. That disparity is similar to those in other states, such as New York. And while legalization itself has reduced the number of people arrested on marijuana charges, racial disparities in arrests remain.

Since legalization, Washington’s marijuana industry has also been overwhelmingly white. The state Commission on African American Affairs, using statistics from the LCB, recently estimated that just one percent of cannabis production and processing licenses have been issued to African Americans, who also have majority ownership of only three percent of the state’s marijuana retail licenses.

Paula Sardinas, a member of the state Commission on African American Affairs, told Marijuana Moment that she testified on behalf of amendments to expand program funding and ensure its existence for years to come.

“After eight years of working with communities of color from Florida to Washington, I’m very proud to have played a major role in crafting Washington’s statewide social equity program,” she said in an email, adding that the effort resulted in a tenfold increase in funding.

Sardinas noted that Washington’s black community had long been frustrated with the state’s cannabis law, Initiative 502, for failing to address equity concerns. “Eight years after I-502,” she said, “the black community reached a boiling point.”

“I’m very thankful to Gov. Inslee for his support” for the equity program, she added.

In comments earlier this year, LCB Director Rick Garza seemed to acknowledge that Washington’s existing cannabis law fell short on issues of equity.

“Initiative 502 missed an opportunity to incorporate a focus on social equity,” Garza told lawmakers earlier this year. “The history of cannabis prohibition shows abundant evidence there was disproportionate harm in communities of color, and that those harmful effects remain with us today.”

To qualify for the new program, an applicant must be from a “disproportionately impacted area,” defined as a census tract that has high poverty and unemployment rates, a high rate of participation in income-based government programs and high rates of arrest or punishment of cannabis-related crimes. The applicant must also submit a “social equity plan” showing how their business would help achieve equity-related goals.

According to the bill’s text, the changes are intended “to reduce barriers to entry to the cannabis industry for individuals and communities most adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related laws” and establish a state cannabis industry that “is equitable and accessible” to those hit hardest by anti-drug laws.

Equity advocates applauded the change, noting that legalization alone isn’t enough to address past drug war harms.

“Washington State was ahead of the curve with adult use, which has advanced the cause of ending the war on black and brown communities tremendously,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), told Marijuana Moment. “It is inspiring but not surprising to see Washington leaders like Rick Garza and Governor Inslee continuing to lead by example by admitting the mistake of not including equity before, by doing it now.”

Equity efforts have become increasingly mainstream in the years since Washington and Colorado first approved legal marijuana. A number of other states that legalized more recently, including Massachusetts, Illinois and Michigan, have already adopted equity measures, though the details of those programs vary greatly from state to state.

In December, MCBA held a conference aimed at ensuring that states that are considering legalization, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, include measures to promote social equity and empower communities that have been harmed the most by prohibition enforcement.

“Equity programs strengthen our industry while empowering our communities,” Ortiz said, “and will be a vital part of any successful legalization campaign moving forward.”

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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.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries

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Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.

N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.

“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”

Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”

Via Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”

The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.

The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.

For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.

Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.

Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.

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Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows

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For the fifth month in a row, Illinois is again reporting record-breaking marijuana sales, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced on Monday.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois has seen escalating cannabis sales month-over-month. In September, consumers purchased more than 1.4 million marijuana products worth a total of nearly $67 million. Almost $18 million of those sales came from out-of-state visitors.

In August, the total sales reached about $64 million—the previous monthly record. The new adult-use sales figures don’t include data about purchases made through the state’s medical cannabis program.

This latest data seems to support the notion that the state’s marijuana market is “recession-proof” and “pandemic-proof,” as a top regulator said in August.

Via IDFPR.

State officials have emphasized that while the strong sales trend is positive economic news, they’re primarily interested in using tax revenue to reinvest in communities most impacted by the drug war. Illinois brought in $52 million in cannabis tax revenue in the first six months since retail sales started in January, the state announced in July, 25 percent of which will go toward a social equity program.

“We were not doing this to make as much money as fast as we possibly could,” Toi Hutchinson, senior cannabis advisor to Gov. J.B Pritzker (D), said. “We were actually doing this for people,” with a focus on supporting communities most impacted by the drug war.

In May, the state also announced that it was making available $31.5 million in restorative justice grants funded by marijuana tax revenue.

That said, ensuring an equitable market as promised hasn’t been easy. Regulators have recently faced lawsuits after dozens of would-be social equity licensees were denied an opportunity to participate in a licensing lottery over alleged problems with their applications. The state said it would approve 75, but only 21 ultimately qualified—and critics complain that the resources it takes to submit an acceptable application creates barriers for the exact people the special licenses are supposed to help.

The governor announced last month that new procedures would be implemented allowing rejected applicants to submit corrected forms. But on Monday, three investors who are finalists from the initial round filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the administration’s decision to permit resubmissions was politically motivated and illegal.

For now, the out-of-state sales data seems to support Pritzker’s prediction during his State of the State address in January that cannabis tourism would bolster the state’s coffers.

Prior to implementation, the pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions.

Over in Oregon, officials have been witnessing a similar sales trend amid the global health crisis. Data released in August reveals that the state saw about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis sales, marking the third month in a row that sales exceeded $100 million.

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California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.

Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.

“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”

Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.

In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”

Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.

Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.

For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.

Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).

The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.

Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”

“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.

Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.

“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”

Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.

“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”

Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.

The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.

“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”

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Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore

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