States Legalizing Cannabis Need Social Equity Policies, Too

Imagine being incarcerated for something that’s no longer a crime — something, in fact, that many now legally profit from. For more than 40,000 Americans sentenced to years, even decades, in prisons for marijuana-related offenses, that’s the grim reality. And, sadly, a disproportionate amount of these unfair and outdated incarcerations are among Black Americans.

Across the country, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and five more are on the ballot this November. While it is welcome news that policymakers are beginning to look at cannabis legalization as a social justice issue that can help resolve some of our country’s racial inequities, they must take a holistic approach that considers a number of factors that contribute to the problem. 

That’s why the National Association of Cannabis Businesses created an important and fundamental blueprint for policymakers to implement a fair, just and effective regulatory framework around state cannabis legalization. Our brand-new Social Equity Policy Guidelines, released to states this week, are prescriptive in nature — establishing the best practices state lawmakers can take advantage of to create the most positive framework for legalization and social equity in their state.

Importantly, our guidelines take into account those individuals who were wrongly caught up in the misguided and decades-long War on Drugs — either directly by incarceration, or simply living in a neighborhood disproportionately impacted by the law’s long reach. It’s with these members of society in mind that we created our guidelines, to ensure everyone has a fair shot at obtaining jobs and business opportunities, particularly in a country steadily legalizing cannabis.

Among these guidelines are several transformative ideas that would encourage the development of minority-owned businesses, too — helping create thousands of well-paying jobs and substantial tax revenues to strengthen those communities unfairly punished by the misguided policies of the past.

First, the guidelines call for creating a Cannabis Social Equity Board in each state, filled by a transparent appointment process through the state agency with regulatory authority to govern cannabis. Under our proposal, the board will include bipartisan representation from state legislators, as well as a diversity of experts involved in the growth, processing and sale of cannabis in that state. Each state’s board will report to the governor and be held accountable through a series of public hearings. 

The guidelines also recommend automatic expungement of a person’s record if arrested or convicted of a cannabis-related crime that did not involve minors, violence or driving under the influence. This is a critically important tenet of the guidelines, since our nation’s prisons are already at record levels of occupancy — largely holding individuals for nonviolent cannabis crimes that are increasingly no longer even illegal in their state.

Another crucial guideline: We encourage lawmakers to redirect at least 5 percent of state cannabis tax revenue to support those who were unjustly affected by the criminalization of cannabis to open cannabis-related businesses. The tax revenue will be used to fund training and technical tools and services, including workshops, application support, business plan development, tax planning, legal compliance assistance and access to low-interest loans. And we recommend another 20 percent be reinvested in the disproportionately affected communities to enhance education, legal aid, youth development programs and violence prevention.

Ultimately, the main goal of social equity reform is to ensure people from communities that have been long harmed by the prohibition of cannabis are provided with new opportunities to partake and succeed in this budding new industry. These guidelines go a step further by solidifying state policymakers’ commitment to these core principles. 

As states pursue cannabis reform and social justice, we must prioritize and invest in the communities and individuals whose lives have been uprooted by years of poor cannabis policies. It is our hope lawmakers and regulators across the country use our social equity guidelines as the foundation of their states’ own regulatory framework.

Truly, there can be no social justice without social equity — and there can be no social equity without a deep commitment among our lawmakers to recognize the wrongs of the past and correct them with smart, forward-looking policies for the future.


Gina Kranwinkel is the president and CEO of the National Association of Cannabis Businesses.

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