Demands for racial equity have been everywhere lately: in our newsfeeds, in the media, in the streets. These demands are particularly prevalent in the cannabis industry because of decades of racial bias in drug enforcement.
In Massachusetts, equity has always been a top priority in conversations around cannabis legalization. Since 2016, Massachusetts has been working to ensure that people of color benefit from the burgeoning marijuana industry by creating a Social Equity Program to guide dispensaries across the state.
Equity, Equality, and Cannabis Licensure
While people have pushed for equality in issues of racial discrimination, the Massachusetts Social Equity Program is about more than just equal access to resources.
The program acknowledges that historically persecuted populations may have limited access to the knowledge, money, and support they need to successfully run a business. Furthermore, the program also provides a boost to fledgling business owners who may not have the same capital, connections, or education as their white, male, able-bodied counterparts.
Rather than focusing on equality, which ignores these systemic disadvantages, the state’s focus on equity is about righting past wrongs and offering resources to those in need.
What Massachusetts Is Doing Differently for Cannabis Equity
From the beginning, Massachusetts has approached marijuana legislation differently than other states. Massachusetts is the only state to develop diversity and social equity programs alongside more typical legislation, showing the state’s commitment to developing a diverse marijuana industry.
Massachusetts takes a three-pronged approach to equity.
Cannabis Licensing System for Minority Applicants
The Social Equity Program is a special licensing system for minority applicants, focusing on assisting the following groups in acquiring a cannabis license:
- Disabled persons
- Formerly incarcerated business owners
Applicants cannot make more than 400% of the median income of the state and must be from one of these minority groups. In exchange, their application fees are waived or reduced, and they receive assistance from a team of business experts on work training, entrepreneurship, and other essential skills.
The Economic Empowerment Program
On top of the Social Equity Program, which focuses on business training, the Economic Empowerment (EE) program allows applicants who live and work in areas disproportionately impacted by the Drug War to have their applications expedited.
Businesses in the EE program must have majority ownership by people of color, and they must also guarantee that at least 51% of employees are disenfranchised or living in an area heavily impacted by the Drug War.
EE applicants must provide economic empowerment to the local community.
Massachusetts requires all applicants seeking cannabis licensure to include a detailed diversity plan in their application. This plan varies for each business but includes a guarantee that the business will do the following:
- Hire and maintain a diverse team
- Promote minority workers
- Maintain a metric to ensure diversity goals are met
New Measures to Ensure Cannabis Industry Equity
Juneteenth is a historic day, marking the end of slavery in all 50 states. To honor this holiday, the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) discussed new measures to better support people of color in the cannabis industry.
Discussion revolved around ensuring Economic Empowerment applicants can easily access the resources provided to businesses in the Social Equity Program. The CCC is particularly committed to ensuring that people of color can maintain majority ownership of their businesses without going bankrupt – offering resources like the ones provided in the Social Equity Program is just one step toward this goal.
Shaleen Title, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission
Commissioner of the CCC, Shaleen Title, is focused on social justice and states that there’s still work to be done beyond the commission’s jurisdiction: “I think where we could go further is to recognize that there are other challenges like capital, like local approval, where we could collaborate with our partners in government.”
What’s more, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) recently showed their support of equity with a newly-launched Equity Scholarship and Opportunity Fund for business owners of color. These advancements and the words of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission make it clear that while racial equity in cannabis is a priority, our progress is far from over.