Is Legal Marijuana A Social Justice Issue?
We define social equity — and explain why both lawmakers and the legal cannabis industry can’t stop talking about it.
America sits at a crossroads when it comes to cannabis. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, 11 of which have also legalized cannabis for adult-use. We’re excited—after over a half-century of misguided drug policies, the country is well overdue for a more sensible approach to marijuana. And given the fact the number of legal states seems to grow every quarter, politicians and industry leaders expect full federal legalization to occur within the next 3–5 years.
The end of marijuana prohibition has paved the way for the explosive growth of the legal cannabis industry, a sector that’s projected to employ 630,000 Americans and generate around $40 billion in annual revenue by 2025. That’s money that can used to help revitalize underserved communities across the nation.
However, legalization — coupled with the meteoric growth of the legal cannabis industry — has also highlighted the devastation America’s marijuana prohibition wrecked on low-income communities of color.
The meteoric rise of the legal cannabis industry has clarified the ways in which America’s marijuana prohibition has fueled mass incarceration — and devastated low-income communities of color. Despite virtually identical usage rates, black Americans are four times as likely as white Americans to be arrested on marijuana-related charges.
However, while legal marijuana may be creating many lucrative new business opportunities, it’s becoming apparent that the spoils of this new “Green Rush” aren’t flowing to the communities who bore the brunt of prohibition-related policing. Data shows that the vast majority of marijuana companies are controlled by white men — whereas only 4 percent of those businesses are owned by African Americans.
As a result, members of the public — alongside their elected officials — are increasingly demanding that legalization be accompanied by policies and programs aimed at repairing some of the harms of the War on Drugs.
Unfortunately, the cannabis industry is facing a big ‘social equity’ issue. The vast majority of industry players (who are poised to generate an incredible amount of wealth and influence) are disproportionately wealthy and white—while low-income, rural, and/or minority communities are being shut out of the sector. And that’s unacceptable, given the fact these are the communities that bore the brunt of our prohibitionist policies in the first place.
As a result, lawmakers have started focusing on incorporating “social equity” initiatives into cannabis industry legislation and regulations. These efforts include legal measures to expunge low-level marijuana-related convictions, as well as policies that help people from disproportionately impacted communities access economic opportunities in the industry. Most of these policies aim to help facilitate minority ownership of cannabis businesses; most social equity programs are focused on giving entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds prioritized access to cannabis business licenses.
Unfortunately — for various reasons —most existing equity programs are faltering. Why? Though most social equity efforts revolve around prioritized licensing programs, these programs don’t address one of the biggest barriers to minority and low-income entrepreneurship in the space — a lack of access to capital. Facilitating entrepreneurship in rural and minority communities is a laudable goal, no doubt, but even if those programs help businesses navigate the byzantine patchwork of local and state regulations, they don’t help them access the capital (a couple million dollars, at least) required to get a cannabis company up and running.
Given the sordid history and devastating consequences of marijuana prohibition, it’s clear we have once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — as well as an ethical obligation — to create a diverse, equitable and sustainable legal cannabis industry. At the same time, it’s become apparent we need to take a more strategic approach to developing social equity programs if we’re really to “right the wrongs of the War on Drugs.”
Follow us and get recommendations as to ways legislators — and cannabis industry leaders — can create impactful social equity programs