Cannabis Social Equity Programs Taking Center Stage Across the Country

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Image: Kunal Mehta / Shutterstock.com

Nothing can truly make up for the unnecessary damage inflicted on so many by the war on drugs. And worse yet, even as cannabis legalization spreads to states across the country, those most impacted by the federal government’s failed mission to eliminate all narcotics often are the very people barred from entry into the cannabis industry. Now, cannabis equity programs have been created to hopefully level the playing field a bit, if they can be implemented and regulated efficiently.

State lawmakers in Massachusetts have announced a cannabis social equity program aimed at providing industry job training, educational resources, and legal assistance with clearing previous convictions for aspiring minority business owners. The initiative is known as CultivatED and was introduced by state Representative Chynah Tyler (D). 

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“The goal of this program is to provide a continuum of support, from individualized legal services and record expungement, to specialized industry-related education, as well as workforce development opportunities during and after the program, which will prepare our students to enter the workforce with the tools they need to excel,” Tyler said in a statement. “It’s a true jail-to-jobs program that’s needed to correct the systemic inequities that put people in jail for the very product that is now legal.”

Los Angeles has already implemented a cannabis social equity program but it may be experiencing some bumps in the road. Some feel that certain applicants may be receiving preferential treatment and are also claiming to be experiencing issues with the city’s social equity website. Frustrated applicants showed up to the City Council Chamber to voice their concerns. 

“There have been a number of allegations and concerns as part of public comment, and anyone who is engaged in this process is welcome to share any information regarding any ethics violations,” said Cat Packer, executive director and general manager for the Department of Cannabis Regulation.

Rita Villa, who sits on the Cannabis Regulation Commission that provides input for the department, seemed to signal some disappointment with the equity program application process.

“I just ask your department to have a real think about how we can address this and how we can correct the situation, and maybe one of the corrections … is maybe we need more than 200 (SEP-licensed businesses),” Villa said.

Sometimes the road toward a more diverse cannabis industry is blocked by simple things, such as high application fees. Seke Ballard, founder of Good Tree Capital, a firm that provides loans to small cannabis businesses, is leading his own social equity campaign. Ballard is offering up to $250,000 in loans that can be used by qualified candidates to purchase a cannabis retail license (worth $2,500 each).

“We’re not going to wait on the state [and] we’re not going to wait on the city,” Ballard told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We are going to make sure that at least 100 social equity applicants have the support and knowledge they need to submit complete, compelling applications.”

Ballard is not giving away free money, but for small businesses trying to get off the ground, he may be offering the next best thing.

“We’re going to provide you with the capital,” Ballard said. “We expect to be paid back, but we’re not trying to make a profit off of you. We just want to make sure you’ve got the resources you need.”

There are already at least half a dozen states with cannabis social equity programs in place. Each program varies with some simply adding application points for minority business owners while others set aside a specific amount of licenses for non-white applicants. Some states also offer cannabis license fees at reduced rates for minority applicants.

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