An increasing number of policymakers believe cannabis is a social justice issue, and they are working to harness legalization as a force for economic and social revival in neighborhoods that have been heavily impacted by the War on Drugs. The mechanisms for this transformation are known as cannabis social equity programs. These programs are beginning to generate jobs and create new small businesses in areas that have not experienced growth or prosperity in many decades.
The National Association of Cannabis Businesses (NACB) has issued a foundational roadmap to help policymakers design effective cannabis social equity programs, capitalizing on the economic opportunities made possible by recent changes to marijuana laws. The concept of cannabis social equity is both simple and transformative: embrace members of society who have been incarcerated or live in neighborhood affected by prior cannabis policy. Create jobs for them and help them become cannabis business owners. The NACB’s social equity guidelines are part of a nationwide effort to address the financial and emotional harms caused by decades of discriminatory marijuana law enforcement, especially among people of color. Black Americans are still nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis use as whites, though both groups say they use cannabis at similar rates. This ongoing tragedy is compounded by the irony that as many as 40,000 individuals are still serving time for the same marijuana-related activities that their more fortunate neighbors are now legally profiting from.
Among the key elements of NACB’s social equity guidelines is a recommendation that lawmakers give priority licensing status to applicants who live in areas that have been disproportionately impacted. The aim is to level the playing field so everyone has equal opportunity to participate in the cannabis industry. Individuals with prior convictions are not automatically disqualified, as has often happened in the past. They may find themselves eligible for business training, technical support, workshops on tax planning and legal compliance assistance. We also advocate providing access to low-interest loans to give financial support to these new entrepreneurs.
As an increasing number of states pursue cannabis reform and legalization, we must reinvest in the communities and individuals whose lives have been uprooted by the previous misguided cannabis-enforcement system. Social equity success will depend on having skilled managers and supportive community leaders in charge of these programs, and we hope our guidelines help inspire state lawmakers to enact comprehensive social equity policies that begin to rectify the injustices of the past.