The cannabis industry in Colorado is booming, but social equity advocates are calling for more from the state. They want to see more people of color and women involved in the industry, which they say will lead to less violence against communities that have been targeted by law enforcement.
Social equity applicants want more from the Colorado cannabis industry. They are pushing for the companies to provide them with equity, not just a job.
Colorado had no blueprint when it became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.
While the state hammered out the early regulations for sales and taxes, it failed to examine how years of marijuana prohibition had affected historically disadvantaged groups, and if those communities should be given preferential access to cannabis-related possibilities. (As originally published by HILAL BAHCETEPE on Westword)
Other states that legalized recreational marijuana in the years after did take similar concerns into account and included social justice measures in their programs.
Colorado is currently playing catch-up in terms of social equality. Governor Jared Polis pardoned 2,732 previous marijuana possession charges on October 1. He authorized $4 million to assist social-equity marijuana businesses when he signed Senate Bill 111 earlier this year. Mayor Michael Hancock also signed into law Denver’s social equity initiative on April 20 — the unofficial stoner holiday — which started accepting applicants for licenses in June.
Is the state, however, going far enough? On August 27, hundreds of industry professionals, NGOs, government officials, and current social equity applicants participated in a conversation sponsored by the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative (BCEI).
Jordan Wellington, a partner at VS Strategies, stated, “From a historical standpoint, we’ve seen Colorado expand its social justice initiatives.” “The first investment is $4 million. We’re not going to stop there, I believe. We’ll definitely push for more, but that’s a fantastic start for this initiative.”
A Colorado social equity program candidate must be a resident of the state and not have had their cannabis company license canceled. At least one of the following requirements must be met by an applicant: They must have lived in an opportunity zone, or disproportionately impacted area, as defined by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, for fifteen years — between 1980 and 2010; been arrested for marijuana offenses, or have an immediate family member arrested for marijuana offenses; and have a household income that does not exceed 50 percent of the state median income.
Those who are granted social equity permits must also own at least 51 percent of the marijuana company.
“A lot of white people speak to one other, but they don’t talk to Black people about what we believe,” said John Bailey, the BCEI’s main organizer. “What they wind up doing is believing they know what a relationship should be like, so they steer their customers in that direction. Part of the problem, I believe, is that people need a new viewpoint to assist them lead their clients so that their best practices and thinking have a social justice aspect and may help them evaluate how what they do could affect the community they have little knowledge of.”
Aja Palomino, a social-equity licensee, has four years of experience in the cannabis business. It would have been virtually impossible for her to become a successful entrepreneur if it hadn’t been for her background and connections.
She said that the most difficult obstacles have been collecting funds and identifying new business possibilities; putting up a successful transaction may come down to a head nod or shake from larger industry participants. “The exclusivity for licensing and delivery seems to be a fantastic idea in principle, but how much it will increase our possibilities is debatable. Palomino described the procedure as “tough.” “This whole program is fantastic, but it is constrained in certain ways. You can only accomplish so much without the right connections, status, and resources.”
William “Willie” Denney had been working in cannabis security for years when he contacted Green Dragon, one of the dispensary businesses where he’d worked, approximately a year ago about his social equity status. He’d enrolled in the state’s Accelerator Program, which connects social equity licensees with established companies ready to help with technical support and money.
Green Dragon, as well as many other businesses with whom he talked, were not interested. Denney said, “I’m searching for businesses every day.” “I won’t get a contract unless someone is willing to work with me on delivery or participate in the Accelerator Program. That’s the problem I’ve been having: no one wants to give up their 51 percent stake.”
Another issue is corporate gatekeeping. Green Dragon’s delivery service, Eaze, is a multi-national business that is now accessible via the Apple store, according to Denney. He cautioned that small companies’ ability to join the market may be harmed if they compete with large tech.
The BCEI created a report card to evaluate a cannabis business’s contribution to social justice in recognition of these problems, which Selena Dunham, partner at the consulting company Classique LLC, thinks is essential to hold the sector responsible. “I hope that in every discussion we have going ahead, as major companies like Amazon seek to enter the sector, we don’t forget how essential it is to hold individuals responsible, evaluate their outcomes, and ensure they are reinvesting back into our communities,” she added. “We’re still a long way from trust, honesty, and openness in the cannabis community. We’re having the discussions, and I believe everyone is courteous and has good intentions, but I also believe that most people are simply waiting to see what happens and then moving on.”
The greatest difficulty for entrepreneur Curtis Washington has been locating a site for a retail marijuana shop. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to locate an acceptable or approved location,” he added, adding that Denver’s 1,000-foot buffer limits and the large number of current shops made entering the market very tough.
Other concerns, according to Lisa Gee of Lightshade Dispensaries, are obstacles to admission for social equity applicants and an industry-wide “protectionism mentality.”
“So much assistance is required to get individuals in a position where they feel comfortable operating their own company,” she said, adding that there is an unseen barrier that prevents would-be entrepreneurs from succeeding. “I believe this is a really tough situation for social justice candidates to be in. They’re entering an established industry that is already protectionist.”
However, Aurora entrepreneur Victoria Osler believes that the social equity initiatives have opened many doors for her hotel company, Dreamy Illusions, and she urged other candidates not to give up. “We have to let go of the notion that we can accomplish it on our own. Many people wish to assist us “she suggested “It will take time and a lot of effort, but don’t give up. We’ve never experienced anything like this before, and we’re honored to be here.”
The Denver Department of Excise and Licenses presently has five outstanding applications for a retail marijuana store under the social equity standards, according to Molly Duplechian, policy analyst. It has already granted five transporter and delivery permits and licenses, but no new cultivation or production facility applications have been received. In November, social equity candidates will be able to apply for hospitality licenses.
According to Will Lukela, head of licensing at the Marijuana Enforcement Division, the state has authorized twelve social equity applicants as of August 1 and has 118 applications awaiting review (MED). One accelerator endorsement and one application have been accepted, and one accelerator shop has been authorized. No social equity applications for accelerated cultivations or factories have been received by the state.
How the $4 million will be allocated will be decided by the OEDIT’s new Cannabis Business Office. $2.5 million will go to loans, $1 million to grants, and half a million to technical support, according to Tristan Watkins, the office’s new program manager.
“We’ll be extremely learning- and teaching-forward on this,” Watkins said, “to ensure that we can truly give the fundamental knowledge that enables the candidates to have the greatest chance of success.” “We want to make sure that what we’re doing isn’t simply lip service, and that what we’re doing has an effect at the end of the day.” The office is presently working on loan applications with people who aren’t lenders, and award values for social equity licensees will be announced shortly.
“Progress is being made, but at a glacial pace, “Dunham said. “I’m cautiously enthusiastic about our prospects, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
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