Fatima V. Afia
Rudick Law Group
While attending orientation for Brooklyn Law School in 2013, the dean of the school said something that has stayed with Fatima Afia to this day: “Lawyers are the guardians to our democracy.”
Afia sought out a career in law because she wanted to bring positive change to communities and in people’s lives. But early into her career as a litigator she discovered the monumental damages the War on Drugs and cannabis prohibition have caused in communities of color.
“It was at that time that I knew that I needed to use my voice and my legal skills in some way to advocate for legalization of the plant and for the individuals who had been building this industry for decades,” Afia says. “So, my interest in this industry is heavily rooted in social justice.”
Afia was responsible for gathering amicus briefs from a diverse array of industry stakeholders to include with 2017 lawsuit Washington v. Sessions/Barr, which argued in front of the Supreme Court that the federal prohibition of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional.
She also testified to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission in 2019, successfully arguing that the state’s narrow criteria for social equity applicants would lead to it failing to meet its own diversity goals. Then-commissioner Shaleen Title told her the testimony was “instrumental” in expanding the state’s social equity program.
“Following implementation of the expedited review process in Massachusetts for all women and minority owned businesses, there has been a significant increase in the diversity of licensees in the Massachusetts’s adult-use market,” Afia says. “And for that, I am grateful.”
Why cannabis law? Was there something specific about the industry that interested you?
At my law school orientation in 2013, the Dean at Brooklyn Law said something that has stuck with me to this day: “Lawyers are the guardians to our democracy.” I, like many aspiring lawyers, went to law school because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve always believed that the law is an instrument of social change. Early in my career as a litigator, I dug into the history of the war on drugs, and cannabis prohibition more specifically, realizing the devastating generational harms it caused communities of colors. It was at that time that I knew that I needed to use my voice and my legal skills in some way to advocate for legalization of the plant and for the individuals who had been building this industry for decades. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have a democracy that provides equal protection under the law, as the 14th Amendment of our country’s Constitution promises us, if communities of color are being disproportionately arrested, locked up, and having their constitutional rights taken from them for engaging in the same cannabis activities as white Americans. So, my interest in this industry is heavily rooted in social justice.
What would you say has been your biggest milestone in the cannabis industry and what was its significance?
My first big milestone occurred when I was a member of the litigation team that brought the lawsuit, Washington v. Sessions (later renamed Washington v. Barr), against the DOJ and the DEA in 2017. That lawsuit sought a declaration that the federal prohibition of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional. When that lawsuit was dismissed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on procedural grounds, we sought to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court. But in order to convince the Supreme Court to hear our case, we needed non-party stakeholders in the industry to submit “Amicus Briefs” explaining to the court that the issues raised by our lawsuit were important enough to impact them as non-parties and warranted a Supreme Court appeal. I was responsible for gathering these briefs. After reaching out to countless organizations and individuals in the industry, I secured a total of nine Amicus Briefs from dozens of trade organizations, non-profits, and pro-bono attorneys, two scientists, and seven members of Congress, including Americans for Safe Access, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, the Minority Cannabis Business Association, The Last Prisoner Project, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, NORML, the National Cannabis Industry Association, Athletes For Care, After The Impact Fund, the Arcview Group, Ethan Russo and CReDO Science Inc., the International Cannabis Bar Association, and several others. Forming a de facto coalition of incredibly diverse stakeholders representing the interests of social equity businesses and advocates, medical cannabis patients and advocates, investors, operators, preeminent endocannibinoid scientists, legalization advocates, athletes, members of Congress, and pro-bono attorneys to support a lawsuit as ambitious as Washington v. Sessions/Barr before the US Supreme Court was no easy feat. But the dialogue and industry relationships that resulted from that exercise moved the needle forward for cannabis-related litigation and the legalization movement generally.
My second milestone in the industry would be presenting testimony to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission in 2019 on behalf of a client seeking a cannabis license as a women and minority owned business that did not qualify for the State’s social equity program. I argued before the commission that the criteria for eligibility to be a social equity applicant was too narrowly tailored to meet the State’s own diversity goals, citing data regarding barriers to entry for women and minority owned businesses and license ownership demographics in the State. Shortly after presenting my testimony, it was announced by then-Commissioner Shaleen Title that an expedited application review process would be created for all women and minority owned businesses applying for a cannabis license. I followed up with then-Commissioner Shaleen Title to thank her and the other commissioners for their excellent work and then-Commissioner Title responded that my testimony was “instrumental” to the decision to create this process, and invited my client and I to meet her in person to discuss the logistics of implementing the newly created process. Following implementation of the expedited review process in Massachusetts for all women and minority owned businesses, there has been a significant increase in the diversity of licensees in the Massachusetts’s adult use market. And for that, I am grateful.
What would you like to change or add to the cannabis industry?
I’d like to see more women in executive-level positions in the industry. When I first came to the industry in 2017, there were many women in high-level positions which further validated my decision to enter this space at the time because it felt like a breath of fresh air to be in a room of decision-makers who were not all men. Over the past six years, however, we’ve been seeing a rapid decline in the number of women in C-Suite positions as more traditional investors deploy capital into the industry. The cannabis industry is still very much in its infancy and with that comes the opportunity to do things differently and better than other industries. I hope we can regain some of the ground we’ve lost here and set a better example for other industries to follow.