The legalization of cannabis has created many challenges for policymakers and the businesses and individuals wishing to participate in the budding industry. Is it possible to achieve equity amid the misinformation and often shifting needs and policies of diverse stakeholders?
And how can the cannabis industry create a pathway for businesses and individuals who are disadvantaged due to their race, gender, or socioeconomic status?
In a recent master class, “Social Equity and Cannabis: Challenges and Opportunities,” hosted by the School of Professional Studies’ Certificate for Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control program, Clark Professor Laury Lucien, who is a marijuana attorney and entrepreneur, sought to answer these difficult questions by examining the obstacles and challenges to achieving fairness in the cannabis industry.
Marijuana has a long history of prohibition in the U.S., despite the lack of medical evidence of potential harmful effects. Federal drug policies have dramatically increased the number of drug arrests — most often for nonviolent possession offenses — disproportionately affecting minorities.
“Current drug policy creates festering issues in communities where it becomes difficult for those charged with marijuana offenses to get out of jail,” says Lucien. “They face ongoing struggles, and then look around and see billions of dollars being made for something they just spent years in prison for using.”
As marijuana becomes legal in states like Massachusetts, the issue tilts toward money and equity. Many jurisdictions look at the state’s social equity programs and cannabis regulations as a baseline for forming their own. Lucien notes that the programs designed by the state’s regulatory body, the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), to address inequities don’t seem to be working smoothly.
“The CCC has a mandate to ensure that people from communities, particularly Black and Latino, that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement and high rates of arrest and incarceration for marijuana and other drug crimes are included in the regulated marijuana industry,” Lucien says.
View Lucien’s Master Class “Social Equity and Cannabis: Challenges and Opportunities” Here.
She believes that social equity isn’t charity — but should comprise policies that promote diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry, providing reparations to help those who have been wronged by inequitable policies.
“The way cannabis laws are enforced actually harmed communities, and social equity programs were created as a remedy to address and repair the damage,” says Lucien. “Damage from incarceration leads to the breakdown of the family, and a loss of trust in government and law enforcement. The incarcerated continue to be stigmatized after they leave jail, and find it difficult to secure gainful employment and real acceptance in society.”
Criminalization has had long-term ill effects not only on the individuals arrested and incarcerated, but also on their families and communities. The CCC designated 29 cities and towns as areas of disproportionate impact based on elevated rates of arrests in those communities, and agreed to economically empower them.
Lucien reviewed the social equity programs developed by the CCC, including the Economic Empowerment Priority Certification, Social Equity Program, and Expedited Review, designed to address social inequities and right injustices in communities resulting from drug policies. These programs seek to encourage full participation from those who have been most harmed by the drug war, and to positively impact neighborhoods, reducing barriers to entry by providing professional training, and sustainable, socially and economically representative practices.
For Lucien, the licensing process has become very limiting, despite trying to offer an equitable pathway into the cannabis business. Prospective business owners need to secure a property, hold a community outreach meeting, negotiate a host community agreement, and comply with local zoning ordinances — each of which can be fraught with issues and costs. Once those hurdles have been met, the application is submitted to the CCC for the state licensing review. Even with assistance from equity programs, the process can be daunting.
One of the largest obstacles is funding, Lucien explained. People who have been harmed by the war on drugs may not be able to overcome the huge capital investment required. Most banks will not loan funds to marijuana businesses, since the substance is still illegal under federal laws.
The number of licenses granted by the CCC seems to support Lucien’s assertion that the equity programs do not provide enough help. Only a fraction of completed applications are submitted through the three social equity programs, and an even smaller number of licenses have been approved for these applicants.
For Lucien, social equity in the cannabis industry should mean reinvestment in the people and communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition, health equity, education designed to remove the stigma, increased access to programs and funding, and services to make licenses a reality for those who would like them.
“We have to make sure every jurisdiction that has marijuana licensing has a social equity program that prioritizes social advocates, and we need to reinvest in local entrepreneurs,” says Lucien. “If we are only focusing on social equity for businesses, then we are missing the individuals who are still suffering. We also need funding for education, training and technical support, and access to professional services. To me, that is what a complete social equity program would look like.”
Clark led the regulatory education effort with its first-in-the-nation Certificate for Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control, developed to help policymakers and business owners navigate the shifting landscape as cannabis transitions from taboo illegal drug to legal substance. The program includes three online courses that cover the public policy issues surrounding the legalization of cannabis. Participants learn firsthand from leading experts including municipal officials, public health experts, and law enforcement leaders. Credits for all three of the certificate’s required courses are transferrable either to the Master of Public Administration degree or the online MPA Senior Leadership degree. Scholarships are available for Massachusetts public sector employees and government officials.