Social Equity and Cannabis Policy: Bringing All Voices to the Table

By Lewis Koski, COO, Metrc

The cannabis industry is on the precipice of becoming a legal, active, and new market nationally. With 33 states and jurisdictions already having some of form of legal cannabis, and popular opinion at 67% of Americans in favor of some form of legalization, cannabis presents incredible business opportunities. Unfortunately, most of the people it presents opportunities to are not the ones who were impacted most from its time as an illegal substance.

At present, 80-90% of cannabis businesses are dominated by white – predominantly male – shop owners. Add to this the fact that drug enforcement has disproportionately affected people of color - in 2018 alone, Black and Latino Americans accounted for nearly half of all cannabis-related arrests, even though they make up only 31% of the total U.S. population - and you’ve got a very troubling dynamic.

As the U.S. is in the midst of a social reckoning brought on in large part by the disparities highlighted during COVID-19 and recent racial violence, it's critical for regulators and cannabis industry leaders to listen to and understand the voices calling for change. As a former law enforcement official and state regulator now working on the peripheral of the cannabis industry, I am seeking out new ideas to make sure my personal and professional actions help, rather than hurt, communities of color.

Black Lives Matter is a call for awareness and much-needed change in America. When I served as a police officer, I learned the value of community input to keep residents safe. Rather than feeling defensive about new public policy proposals related to policing, law enforcement and government are beginning to open themselves up to new perspectives at this time when the nation is deeply craving change.

The same applies to the cannabis sector, where states with legal medical and adult-use markets are considering new social equity policies. When implementing these policies, government officials must take the time to collaborate with a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure inclusive policies reach all disenfranchised groups and can be sustained.

In Colorado, we had to tackle complex topics for the entirely new legal cannabis market that were contentious and involved many stakeholders with competing viewpoints. The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division held public working groups that brought together disparate voices to arrive at consensus. Although it did not always seem possible to arrive at a balanced outcome when deliberations would start, the working group process was viewed as an effective way of arriving at democratic policy that enjoyed considerable buy in from the affected communities. Today, Colorado is continuing to use this multi-stakeholder input process to move the needle in the right direction when it comes to social equity – a topic that was unfortunately not addressed by the state at the onset of legalization.

In the spirit of learning more from various stakeholders, I am conducting dissertation research on these early Colorado working groups and interviewing previous participants. Preliminary observations of my data suggest that even those with differing views on legalization had some consistent perceptions about the policymaking process. Here are three benefits of working groups, according to past participants:

Being Heard Face-to-Face

One of the most important benefits was giving participants the opportunity to share their views and questions directly. No one else can do justice to each person’s unique experience. A few participants noted the working groups helped them establish credibility for the group they represented.

Expanding Relationships

Most participants saw the working group process as a way to expand relationships with other stakeholders and government officials. They saw these new partnerships as beneficial to better understand one another and find areas of agreement.

The Opportunity to Continue Learning

Nearly all participants said they benefited from hearing other perspectives directly at the table. As stakeholders learned from one another, they were more comfortable being vulnerable and acknowledging they learned something compelling that helped to reshape their thinking. At the end of the process, competing interests, at the very least, had a shared understanding and, sometimes, arrived at fair public policy “we could all live with.”

From this experience, I wholeheartedly believe in the potential for meaningful and effective public policy change at state and local levels, where the impacts of institutional racism are arguably felt the most. I encourage local and state officials to go out of their way to ensure different viewpoints are in the room, sharing their thoughts and solutions to address racism. Even if that has been attempted before, try again. And again. It takes time, especially with the government, to institutionalize new processes. It will be hard work, but it will be worth it to shape our future.