Dozens of social equity-focused community organizers, policy makers, business owners, lawyers and finance professionals gathered at Civic Hall in New York City on Saturday for the Tri-State Cannabis Equity Summit, hosted by the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA).
Members of minority groups, formerly incarcerated individuals, and communities affected by immigration policies have called for social equity as the cannabis industry booms. Cannabis legalization efforts have often failed to consider industry access for the very people who have been affected by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws. But in the last couple of years, equity has begun to enter the spotlight, with regulators and lawmakers in states like Massachusetts and Illinois prioritizing equity efforts.
During the summit, Jason Ortiz, the president of the MCBA, interviewed Rama Issa-Ibrahim, a Syrian-American activist and the deputy public advocate for Justice, Health Equity & Safety for New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. (Both photographed above.) In response to a question from Ortiz on how to best put equity policy into law, Issa-Ibrahim said that building a strong base of supporters is crucial and that, when it comes to “the ones that should be benefiting the most from these new policies, their stories and their narratives have to be at the core of the movement.”
“That’s really the only way, because I truly believe, and Jumaane… has said this several times, that those that are the closest to the pain should be closest to the power,” Issa-Ibrahim continued. “We know our communities best and we know the solutions to the problems that our communities are struggling with.”
The broad argument is this: The removal of barriers to entry for these communities will give them a shot at inclusion in what will be a multi-billion dollar industry in the tri-state area, one that equity advocates say would otherwise benefit mostly white and male businesses.
But, when it comes to the details, incorporating equity into cannabis legislation has proven to be far more complex. And the aim of the summit, in part, is to bring those complexities into the conversation before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for a coordinated regional approach to adult use legalization gets fully underway. In mid-October, governors, lawmakers, and regulators from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Colorado gathered in midtown Manhattan to debate—and, they hope, agree upon—cannabis policies, from legalization to vaping.
(Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the “northeast approach” to legalization and other cannabis policies here.)
In the wake of failed legislative efforts earlier this year to legalize adult use cannabis in New York and New Jersey, issues of equity are front and center for law and policy makers. This is because sticking points in the failed bills included issues like: allocation of tax revenue to equity-related efforts, expungement for drug-related offenses, and priority licensure for aspiring business owners affected by cannabis prohibition.
Leaders of the organizations gathered at the MCBA summit called for automatic expungement of low-level cannabis-related offenses, allowing home-grow, access to capital for black and brown communities, and support for “legacy” cannabis growers and distributors operating in the underground market who want to transition into the legal market.
In a panel on criminal justice reforms and community reparations, Fatima Afiam, a lawyer at the firm Hiller, PC based in New York City, called the Controlled Substances Act unconstitutional and showed language she drafted for an automated early release and resentencing policy. Pilar DeJesus, a community activist and founder of High Mi Madre, a worker-owned CBD cooperative for women of color, called for language to include workers’ cooperatives in any equity measures in New York’s next legalization bill draft.
Leo Bridgewater, co-founder of holding company LeafLaunch and the director of veteran outreach for the advocacy nonprofit Minorities for Medical Marijuana, stressed the urgency of communicating to a larger pool of potential supporters in time for New Jersey’s ballot referendum on cannabis, expected next year.
“We need to be strategic, we have to be deliberate, and we have to be purposeful,” Bridgewater said. “We need to know who’s who, where to go, and how to get it done, and we need to have one another’s back.”
Jennifer Cabrera, a lawyer at Vicente Sederberg LLP who moderated the panel, asked the group to consider measures for transitioning underground cannabis operators above-ground with the legalization of cannabis in the tri-state area.
“Decriminalization, legalization, it doesn’t end racism … it doesn’t end misogyny, it doesn’t end the abuses of capitalism. It takes care of one tool that has been used very effectively to have mass incarceration and also to be a means of oppression,” Cabrera said. “We want to really protect the people that have been in this market up till now, building it. This isn’t an industry that’s going to come out of nowhere. It does exist.”
In a second policy proposal discussion on ownership and licensing, the co-founders of Washington, D.C.-based EntreVation, a black-owned business development firm providing consulting services to victims of the war on drugs, spoke of strengthening future government provisions that would designate more licenses for social equity candidates, using Massachusetts as a model.
EntreVation co-founder Brandon Wyatt, who serves on the MCBA board, stressed the importance of cannabis business licencing policy when it comes to generating financial gain for minority owners.
“You typically think, well, you want to fight for the shop or dispensary that’s in your neighborhood, you want to own one in your neighborhood. No. I want equity to be that we get first pick in the highest taxed district in the city,” Wyatt said. “People need to start thinking about … blocking off the richest districts in the cities to allow minority applicants to operate there.”
One speaker, Tahir Johnson, the business development manager at the National Cannabis Business Association, shared his personal cell phone number with the crowd and urged them to call him with questions on their businesses.
Luis Vega, a Connecticut hemp farmer and recipient of a $150,000 i2 (Inclusive Industry) Accelerator grant from private equity investment firm Merida Capital’s partnership with the MCBA, also gave concrete strategies and offered support.
“There is capital. Look for it. I hear about companies giving out fifty grand like it’s water these days,” Vega said. He advised those who want to get into the legal cannabis industry to establish their legitimacy early on, perhaps by growing other legal plants (like microgreens) first to get equipment and build infrastructure as a cultivator before growing cannabis.
“You just have to be a business. Be able to accept the check that they’re going to give you. You have to have those basic business things in place to do what you’re going to do,” Vega said. “If you’re a legacy closet grower in Brooklyn, guess what? You’re growing microgreens now.”
Shaleen Title of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission gave a fireside chat at the end of the summit. Title, after a career in drug policy advocacy, has used her commissioner seat to help create and implement a social equity program in the state, the first of its kind. As a young woman of color, she said, she isn’t afraid to take risks and “take up a lot of space” in her push for equity in cannabis regulation.
“The key thing is for all of us to support each other, and be on the same page, and make the city or person or business feel comfortable taking risks,” Title said.
Title stressed the importance of worker-owned cooperatives, equity programs on a city and town level, and the use of research-based data to write legislation. “When I think about what’s next, I’m thinking about decriminalization of all drugs. I think that’s just a given for the next step,” she told interviewer Stephanie Izquieta, a former drug-policy activist, during the fireside chat. “I would like to be in a place where we don’t need equity programs.”
Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled Vicente Sederberg.