Today, there is no uniformity in how states with legal cannabis approach equity. In other words, within the state-by-state patchwork of cannabis laws, there exists an equity patchwork, though lessons learned are emerging.
Last week, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law hosted regulators and policymakers to discuss how cannabis law reform and subsequent rules can be centered on equity and can “lift” communities harmed by the disproportionate enforcement of prohibition. Panelists discussed how regulators can achieve economic empowerment and restorative justice, and how best to reinvest in communities.
Panelists included Douglas Berman, executive director of Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at OSU; Amber Marks, a lawyer and lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London; Cat Packer, a 2015 graduate of OSU and the executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation for the City of Los Angeles; and Dan Riffle a 2003 graduate and policy analyst for the District of Columbia Department of Behavioral Health. The panel was moderated by Shaleen Title, the distinguished cannabis policy practitioner in residence at the Center. Title is also the vice-chair of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, a group of cannabis regulators and government officials who are shaping state-level cannabis programs. Title was also a Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner.
Packer, who has led cannabis regulation in LA since a 2017 appointment from Mayor Eric Garcetti, has ushered the region through the launch and growth of the state’s legal adult use program, as Cannabis Wire has reported, and the growing pains of establishing equity provisions.
Packer detailed how the right coalitions of academics, policymakers, and public health experts can start to move the needle on equity.
“We’re now on our fourth year and I have to say, very transparently, it still feels like we are just getting started with the work that has to be done,” Packer said, “to be able to use different policies and programs to serve communities most impacted.”
Packer turned to how the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition aims to expand cannabis-related equity efforts.
“I don’t think that it’s strange at all for folks to be frustrated with the status of cannabis policy reform, despite some of the progress that’s been made across the country. I think we truly have to see these gains as modest to-date, and work collectively to address them,” Packer said.
Even with the bumps in regulating cannabis in Los Angeles, Packer highlighted an “active conversation” related to law enforcement and cannabis that could be “modeled” elsewhere across the country.
“What we’re seeing through the licensure and regulation of commercial cannabis activity,” Packer said, is “modeling what it looks like to, essentially, remove police power.” In other words, police are being displaced as the “primary tool” for handling cannabis activity in jurisdictions, which has instead shifted to regulatory bodies or public health agencies.
Packer has “often wondered” whether this shift could be applied to other realms that have typically been under law enforcement.
Another major policy area that Packer has overseen is the allocation of cannabis tax revenue toward equity offices.
“If we’re intentional about allowing the revenue from commercial cannabis activity to be directed directly into agencies that are specifically tasked with being able to comprehensively identify and create strategies to address inequities, then we will have models where there can be an ongoing opportunity for us to use cannabis policy reform and cannabis tax revenue to drive policies that are specifically anti-racist,” Packer said.
Riffle, who used to work with the Marijuana Policy Project, said that two things attracted him to cannabis policy: public health, and the idea that prohibition left revenue on the table.
“There’s demand for it, there’s going to be supply. Why don’t we just have a model where we at least capture some of the revenue from that?” Riffle asked. Riffle took it a step further. “If your goal is to collect revenue, why not just have the government grow and sell marijuana itself, or at least sell marijuana itself. And then at that point you’re capturing 100% of the revenue.”
Government-run cannabis regulatory models have been proposed, like in Rhode Island, as Cannabis Wire has reported, but they haven’t caught on. (This is the model, however, in Uruguay, the first nation in the world to legalize and regulate cannabis, and in some parts of Canada.) Still, Riffle said that the goal for regulators and policymakers shouldn’t be to grow and sell as much cannabis as possible as cheaply as possible, it should be to do so “responsibly,” which, he argues, a government framework can do better than a privatized model. The goal of the private sector, Riffle said, is to “target people who are heavy users,” similar to the approach that the tobacco industry has taken.
“I think there’s the real risk, and we’re seeing it in some respects now, there’s a real risk that we repeat a lot of the mistakes that we made with the tobacco model. And I think frankly we haven’t acknowledged some of the the mistakes that we made with the alcohol model as well,” Riffle said.
Riffle argued, too, that a state-run model is better for equity efforts than a private model, because statistics show that the hiring, promotion, retention, and overall pay are higher in the public sector than the private sector. And, whereas some equity programs set aside initial licenses, or license types, for specific equity applicants, those wins are narrow.
“If you really want to do structural reform, if you really want to do social equity and rebuild entire communities, and not just make another millionaire or billionaire, I think you have to have more broad-based distribution of the benefits of marijuana legalization. And so, I think you can do that through a government-run monopoly,” Riffle said.
Berman, the executive director of the Center at OSU, brought the equity conversation back to criminal justice, calling it “mind-numbing” to set up the cannabis industry in a way that some people could become quick millionaires by engaging in the same activity that still creates criminal records for others. While some legalization bills include expungement, not all do, and Berman said it should be automatic.
“That is just an injustice that should not persist,” Berman said.