3 Ways to Address Inequity Through Cannabis Legalization

In the last decade since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for adult use, activists from across the movement landscape have continued to push for measures, initiatives, and policies that adequately address the dire needs of Black and brown communities which have been most harmed by the ongoing domestic War on Drugs.

Social equity, and equity for that matter, was not a main driving force nor a major component of many of the first bills that legalized the plant back in 2012. It would take nearly half a decade before advocates in non-legalized states would be able to form deep enough networks and momentum to formulate policies that placed equity as a must-have before politicians moved forward on cannabis legalization. 

Early proponents of addressing the War on Drugs through cannabis legalization were non-existent. Now, there exists a patchwork of equity initiatives that have put some cities and states on the radar, for better or worse, to many advocates’ tepid approval.

But this patchwork, from Oakland to Massachusetts, to Illinois to Oklahoma, give cannabis legalizers an opportunity to examine, reassess and imagine how cannabis legalization could make more of a meaningful impact on the communities who continue to find themselves under-resourced and undervalued, and the legacy operators who now must bear the brunt of being pushed farther into the underground as large multi-state operators from out of town gobble up the opportunities to operate in a new legal world. 

Below is a shortlist of do’s and dont’s for those who are working to understand the potential long-reaching effects that cannabis legalization will have right in their own backyards.

1. Create a disparity and impact report

It’s no longer a case of if adult-use legalization will become the standard across the country, it’s a matter of when. In many cases, we see a familiar pattern of decriminalization, medical marijuana legalization, and finally adult-use legalization. Commonly left out of this trend, until recently, are state and municipal studies that clarify, recommend, and help ensure sure how legalization should best be implemented before any bill is signed, before any regulatory agency is created, and before any license is handed out for legal operations.

Two examples come to mind when looking for inspiration on how communities can create such reports before legalization: Oakland’s medical marijuana equity analysis and Virginia’s Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization. In Oakland’s case, in May 2016, the city’s city council began to hold city hall meetings, public input, and revisions to publish a race and equity analysis of medical cannabis regulations before the movement to legalize California picked up steam. The hope was to address the ongoing disparities in the medical cannabis industry and level the playing field of operators who came from backgrounds, communities, or experiences that were directly impacted by the War on Drugs. 

The result allowed for a one-to-one match that enabled the reservation of half of all medical dispensary licenses to go to equity applicants for every license that was granted in the city. It also allowed incentives for investors to gain priority for a general license if they partnered with an equity applicant and provided free rent or real estate to the applicant for three years, as a way to lower the upfront costs and financial barriers of access to capital and real estate that stymied small business owners opportunities to gain a license. (It should be noted that predatory partnerships were noted and researched in Oakland, a pitfall and unintended consequence of the equity analyses)

In Virginia’s case, two bills from the state’s 2020 General Assembly directed the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission to review how Virginia could legalize cannabis for adult use, with an emphasis on how prior harm to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. 

The goal was to provide opportunities and recommendations for redress through adult-use legalization. In short, the sprawling study laid out several opportunities to address disparities, including mechanisms and pathways to enable homegrown cultivation and the creation of new community reinvestment programs that would use money specifically earmarked from the tax revenue of legalized products.

Studies like these, while nowhere near perfect, are opportunities for community members to give their input and craft new mechanisms and pathways that allow legal cannabis markets to reconcile and provide redress for those who’ve been generationally harmed by over-policing, poverty, and other negative health determinants stemming from the War on Drugs.

2. Don’t cap licenses

In a very well-documented competitive market, multi-state operators with an influx of cash, capital, and investors tend to have first dibs at gaining licenses in often limited or restrictive cannabis markets – and because many states, like Pennsylvania (medical marijuana), California (adult-use), Nevada and Illinois (limited licenses in adult-use markets), typically limit the initial amount of licenses at the beginning of their medical or adult-use markets, these large corporations can often go in and sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into license applications, fees, and consultants to obtain a license. 

The effects tend to be obvious: limited license means less opportunity for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and legacy operators and returning citizens to even stand a chance to obtain a license. The often high barrier of entry in regards to costs, political influence, and technical know-how, stunts states in tackling the underground, unregulated market, and only further widens the gap between legacy and legal. Take California for example, where, after five years the vast majority of the market remains in the hands of the underground market. 

What states should learn from California specifically is by allowing no license caps and lowering the barrier of entry for applications, more people will be able to have a chance in obtaining a cannabis license, and the legal market can be encouraged to operate in the open without fear of penalty, retribution or incarceration. 

Combating the dearth of licenses also means more opportunities for legal businesses to contribute to taxes, where the tax revenue can thus be used, and earmarked, specifically for reparations and other measures that offer redress to the Black and brown communities who’ve been most harmed by the War on Drugs.

3. Consider expungement and reentry

Cannabis legalization is more than just about the benjamins. It’s a right to grow, possess and consume cannabis, and more so it’s a right that we tackle the unjust and unnecessary penalization and incarceration of people who’ve been wrongly convicted and sentenced for a medicinal plant that was once listed as a legal medicine in the American Pharmacopia as late as 1942


Developing meaningful impact through cannabis legalization first starts with acknowledging and admitting the harm done by a racist domestic war on Black and brown communities, patients, and anti-war activists. Then, after freeing and releasing all prisoners who’ve been incarcerated for marijuana, allowing them to determine how the cannabis market, including licenses, taxes, allocation of revenue, should be funneled to their communities to help stabilize and address the ongoing social and political determinants to their health and livelihood. 


We’re starting to see what this could look like in actuality. California’s Working Group just recently released an in-depth report on how to address the equity issues within Los Angeles and California’s volatile market. The report acts as a guidebook and toolkit for advocates to ensure that equity language is baked into all policies regarding the creation of the legal cannabis market, not just a siloed social equity program that does not address the myriad of hardships that continue to plague legacy and diverse operators from entering the market.

In the age of legalization, where conversations around equity, access and inclusion continue to take center stage, there’s plenty of opportunity for the industry to make a positive impact – particularly on the Black and brown communities who’ve been most harmed by cannabis prohibition. States like New York, where $200 million are being specifically allocated to promote industry equity, are placing direct dollars to build a thriving and supportive market. It’s time others do too.