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Members of the diverse communities that were savaged by the war on drugs are working together to be sure that they will not be cast aside in today's cannabis industry. 

Whether they're politicians, pastors, entrepreneurs or activists, social equity advocates are united in ensuring that the predicted economic boon of legalized marijuana will not leave them behind.

That was the consensus of panelists and a crowd of 200 gathered Sept. 26, 2019 at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California, for Social Equity Day. The free event at the museum featured two panel discussions on advocacy and social equity to raise awareness on social justice efforts in the marijuana legalization process.

Cannabis industry insiders and outsiders alike are engaged in intense grass-roots efforts to secure a foothold in the cannabis industry, particularly among people of color who were disportionately targeted by cannabis prohibition.

Social equity isn't just just a noble idea; it was part of the intent behind Proposition 64, which California voters approved in 2016. The law calls for regulating cannabis to reduce barriers to entry into the legal, regulated market by offering technical, financial, regulatory and other forms of support to those who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. 

Democratic California state Sen. Steven Bradford, a panel participant, wrote the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed, thus allowing distribution of grant money to cities with local equity programs.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Maria Cordona, left, a political consultant and CNN commentator, moderates a social equity panel featuring speakers Frank Louie of the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce, Armando Gudiño of the Drug Policy Alliance, cannabis law consultant Yvette McDowell, and California state Sen. Steven Bradford on Sept. 26, 2019 at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California.

Part of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed's mission is to spotlight the history of cannabis and shed light on the most damning moments throughout the last century. In addition, Weedmaps recently launched a program to accelerate more inclusive minority participation in the cannabis industry. The initiative will help entrepreneurs as they apply for and obtain licenses and receive professional development training and compliance resources. Minority entrepreneurs also will receive free advertising for their licensed businesses. 

“We want to make sure the people who drove the industry to where it is today have a chance to succeed in the industry,” said Weedmaps Chief Marketing Officer Juanjo Feijoo in a pre-conference discussion about the company's support of social equity initiatives.

The panelists noted that it also will take personal and organized efforts to work together so that independent business owners from the diverse communities that were savaged by the war on drugs will not be cast aside. Several mentioned the need for creating political will and policy to keep Big Tobacco and Big Pharma from moving in to co-opt the market and reap all the rewards.

It will also take education, funding, and well-crafted legislation to make social equity and social justice foundational in the coming cannabis revolution.

In recent years, as the cannabis industry has grown and prospered along with legalization, many advocates have called for a focus on social equity and justice.

And that all starts on home turf, organizers said.

“You must get involved. You have to start locally because all politics start locally,” said Yvette McDowell, a cannabis law consultant and co-chair of the California Cannabis Industry Association's Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity Committee.

“Know your council members. That's where you have to start. You have to start educating them,” McDowell said.

Sen. Bradford agreed and urged attendees to engage with and educate local lawmakers.

Kika Keith, a social equity advocate and founder of Life Development Group, said people need to read and understand the law, which provides the foundation and guiding principles of social equity.

“Then we have to show up,” she said. “We have to show up at our neighborhood councils and tell them why it's important. There's a whole community reinvestment. Social equity isn't just about racism, it's about job creation. Also about equity in the communities that were affected by drugs.”

Keith and her colleagues travel to Sacramento, California's capital, to be heard as well.

“You've got to go to these meetings and get on the mic and be part of the record,” she said. “Then all of a sudden you see the tone start to change. And that's the only way we can effectively make our way all the way to the state.”

An executive for a tech company specializing in cannabis urged participants to act quickly.

“The faster we buckle up, the better off we'll all be and be able to not just rally as a community, but rally as a community that's educated that can play the game,” said David Hua, CEO and co-founder of Meadow, a software company specializing in California cannabis. “That when we need new legislation, we can create the bill that we can all get behind.

“If we need to rally to get someone in office or go to a board of supervisors meeting we can do that and speak the language,” Hua said.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Frank Louie, center, Chief Operating Officer of the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce, addresses the audience Sept. 26, 2019, during the Weedmaps Museum of Weed's social equity forum in Hollywood, California. Political strategist and CNN commentator Maria Cardona, left, was the moderator, and Armando Gudiño, Policy Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was also a speaker.

In response to calls for equity, a number of California cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco have created social equity programs, “to acknowledge and repair the harm caused by the War on Drugs and the disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition,” according to the Los Angeles Social Equity Program website.

However, the legislative clock is ticking, said Armando Gudiño, Policy Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. He said in 2023, California is set to open its cannabis markets to major tobacco and pharmacology companies. When that happens, equity partners that are not in business and running may find themselves out of luck trying to compete with the corporations. In addition, he noted that more than 75% of the cities in California have yet to set out regulations for cannabis operations, which is problematic for potential equity partners.

Gudiño advocates for a law that would add a five-year moratorium before the corporations can move in. 

Several equity partner applicants from Northern California engaged at a round table before the panel discussions and talked about the struggles they face. These included finding adequate funding for fees, legal help, and rents. They also discussed the need to be educated in business and law, the better to navigate unscrupulous lenders, endless red tape, and delays in the licensing process.

Many have been waiting for more than a year for their licenses.

“Equity was never meant for us to succeed,” said Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt Jr., who was the first equity partner to successfully open a dispensary in Oakland. “It was meant to be a bone.”

The war on drugs tore many communities apart, incarcerated generations of men of color, and set the stage for systemic inequity.

The numbers are staggering and show how deleterious the drug war has been on communities of color. Marijuana prohibition enforcement is predominantly targeted against the most vulnerable, low-level users, the majority of whom are people of color. According to DPA statistics:

  • The United States still spends $47 billion annually on a still-active war on drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) In 2017, 85.% of drug arrests were for possession, not selling or manufacturing. 
  • There were 659,700 arrests for marijuana violations and 90.8% of those were for possession only.
  • In 2016, 456,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. for a drug law violation.
  • Blacks and Latinos make up nearly 47% of the people arrested for drug law violations, though they make up just 31.5% of the U.S. population.

There have been no credible studies showing higher usage among people of color. Jay King, president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, said the war on drugs is another chapter in ongoing suppression of the black community throughout American history that must be addressed.

“We need more honest conversations that are uncomfortable,” he said, adding that those are the conversations that often produce real results.

“You have to understand what led us here and it's a very layered conversation,” said Andrea Drummer, Head Chef at Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Cafe, which opened the first cannabis cafe in the U.S. in West Hollywood in October 2019.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Guests of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed listen to experts in business and law describe the barriers people of color face in establishing enterprises and careers in the fast-growing cannabis industry. The social justice forum was part of the educational and advocacy efforts of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California.

“You have to talk about racism, you have to talk about the disproportionate economics in terms of income,” Drummer said. “We have to have the hard conversations and unearth the layers.”

The Rev. James K. McKnight, senior pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles, saw the dual-edged future of cannabis in his community.

On one end is coming to grips with “the pain we've all experienced,” McKnight said, adding, “if we can figure out a way to do this right, we can right some wrongs. If it's done right, there's promise.”

The audience applauded a suggestion from Hua to right the wrongs: “Anyone currently serving time in jail should be released,” said the tech entrepreneur. He also urged those in the audience to know that their efforts to support California social equity have larger ramifications. “Everyone wants this to succeed because the world is watching.”