Can Recent Uprisings Help Shift Conversations about Social Equity in Cannabis?

social equity in cannabis | cannabis and social equity
Unheard of concepts prior to legalization, conversations about social equity in cannabis may get a boost in the wake of recent racial-justice uprisings. Words like privilege, injustice and ‘Black Lives Matter’ are on newspapers, screens and tongues everywhere. Conversations about race and racial injustice are being had by the many and some wonder how we can use this time to galvanize lasting change for those negatively impacted by The War on Drugs.

Stats Don’t Lie 

While the cannabis industry was worth an estimated $13.6 billion last year alone, just over 4% of those dollars went to Black business owners. A slightly less unimpressive 5.7% went to licensed Latino owners and operators. Compare that to the more than 80% of white cannabis business owners, and it’s clear that cannabis remains an area where racial injustice pervades and ‘white’ offers unearned and disproportionate access into the legal cannabis revolution. Basically, cannabis was and remains a race issue.

Repairing the Harm: Social Equity in Cannabis

When discussing social equity, we’re referring to “ownership of cannabis businesses, full and automatic expungement, and community reinvestment of tax revenue and corporate philanthropy” as outlined by Cage-Free Cannabis, an organization helping the cannabis community and its consumers to repair the harms caused by the War on Drugs.

“Current social equity conversations have been largely inadequate — they do not measure up to the scale of the damage done by the War on Drugs: they don’t include enough funding for social equity programs, they don’t include enough investment in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs, nor do they include enough rapid deployment of automated expungement so that people can move forward with their lives,” Cage-Free co-founder Adam Vine told CannaCon.

Social equity in cannabis means a fair share, a piece of the pie, and even reparations to some. Another example of equity “should include state-funded educational programs, priority licenses for those that meet the definition of a social equity applicant, grants derived from cannabis tax revenue, state-funded incubator programs to provide mentorship and access to professional services, vehicles for micro licenses to evolve to full-scale licenses, technical assistance for filling out the lengthy applications, and automatic expungements that put the burden on the state rather than the petitioner,” said Jessica Gonzalez, an associate in the Cannabis Law Group at Bressler, Amery & Ross in New Jersey, in a recent article. 

Economic Freedom Is Everything to the Poor

Advocates also point to the invaluable economic advantages and opportunities for financial freedom that come when a license is effectively used by a social equity applicant. With such low percentages of Black and Brown ownership in cannabis, the cycle of poverty experienced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) is perpetuated.

How Can Current Social & Racial Justice Movements Influence True Equity?

We’ve seen clearly what happens when people organize. Millions have gathered, mourned and marched since the death of George Floyd. An entire New York City street is painted with stark yellow paint “Black Lives Matter.” Racist statues are coming down across the country. People are having actual conversations about reappropriating taxpayer funds from the police to education and housing initiatives, something trending on social media channels everywhere under the hashtag, #defundthepolice. The battle cries are deafening.

The cannabis community can’t stop there, though. Now is an important time to learn from our predecessors — organizations who’ve been advocating for decriminalization and to repair the harms caused by The War on Drugs for years. These organizations include Cage-Free Cannabis and Equity First Alliance, who co-produced a short documentary titled, A Record Shouldn’t Last A Lifetime with LA-Based cannabis brand, Besito.

Just this month, The National Alliance for Cannabis Businesses (NACB) announced a plan to offer social equity recommendations for state legislators. While we wait for a legalization recommendation bill to reach the Senate floor, this type of activism can affect real change. Radical honesty, transparency and storytelling changes laws.

Legalization and Social Equity: It Varies and Has Failed Us

Thirty-three states, including Washington, D.C., have legalized ‘physician-prescribed’ medicinal cannabis, 11 of which also permit the recreational or “adult-use” of cannabis. Across state lines, however, accessibility, taxes, licensed operators per capita and commitment to racial justice in legalized cannabis can vary dramatically. 

Understanding newly legalized and regulated cannabis can be difficult for the layperson, but social equity in cannabis shouldn’t be. Being clear on how your state is (or isn’t) supporting social equity reform can be even trickier. We say “state” because despite a 2019 House Judiciary Committee bill to legalize nationally, to date, the sale and/or possession of cannabis remains federally illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.

As poignantly stated in a 2018 Harvard Kennedy School Review essay, cannabis “regulations uniquely disadvantage the very populations centered in the social justice movement to decriminalize marijuana” said author Khadijah Tribble. When we consider the inadequate percentage of Black and Brown ownership of cannabis businesses, Tribble’s statement is also deafening. The industry must do better with social equity in cannabis. Those disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs deserve better.

Some Remain Hopeful

We find ourselves having an unprecedented cultural dialogue on what it means to be anti-racist, The War on Drugs and accountability in the cannabis space. Whether divine timing or a superstorm of COVID + the media + how tired people are of seeing Black and Brown people senselessly killed, many say the time for social equity in cannabis is now. Los Angeles is said to be headed for “major course changes” and a much-needed social equity overhaul.

One organization closely following the performance of more than 260 (and counting) cannabis brands is Cannaclusive. They penned an open letter to the cannabis community demanding justice and included a multi-sourced, highly vetted database called The Accountability List, which includes “the number of Black employees, whether they are POC-owned, how they addressed the killing of George Floyd and if they’ve made any relevant donations.”

According to a 2020 ACLU Report titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White, “the racist war on marijuana is far from over,” expounding that Black people are “still more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people in every state.” That’s not repairing the harm.

Let’s continue amplifying our voices to ensure marginalized communities have a stake in the Green Rush.

Let’s demand social equity now.


  1. Jennyandthehigh on October 25, 2020 at 6:35 pm


  2. […] had on minority communities, as well as strive for racial balance in Denver’s cannabis industry. Social equity qualification is tied to the April 20, 2021 marijuana licensing overhaul which included a rule […]

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