Marijuana social equity advocates expected a big year at the Colorado State Capitol. At the start of the session, legislators all but promised a bill proposing the expungement of past low-level marijuana crimes, and there was growing support for additional measures creating marijuana business opportunities for communities harmed by the War on Drugs.
Then COVID-19 happened, and now social equity proponents are nearly back to square one.
The expungement bill hadn't been introduced before legislators were sent home in March during a statewide stay-at-home order. With a significant fiscal impact required to clear so many records and the state budget now diving off a cliff, pot-crime expungement isn't expected to make an appearance when lawmakers reconvene on May 26. But activists are still making a push to define who deserves a shot at marijuana business licenses through future social equity programs, even though legislative options are limited.
Marijuana business ownership was 88 percent white in Colorado as of 2018, with the state coming under criticism for a lack of diversity within legal pot as newer states to legalization set aside certain business licenses for individuals from economically challenged communities or those impacted by the drug war. Minority communities have pursued discussions with both Denver officials and state marijuana regulators, but advocates believe that a strong definition of, and criteria for, social equity applicants are needed before any new licenses are handed out.
"Once we have definitions, that's when we start doing policy," says Sarah Woodson, director of the minority business advocacy group Color of Cannabis. "I think we were very close" before COVID-19.
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Before the pandemic closed the state legislature, Woodson was working with a lobbyist and several state legislators in hopes of getting a bill on the floor that would define social equity applicants. Deciding who gets a business advantage is never easy, and Woodson says that crafting the definition — which she says is race-neutral and includes a wide span of minority groups — required support from the marijuana industry. She's already had some help from the Cannabis Consumer Coalition and its own marijuana lobbyist.
The advocates now believe they have enough agreement within the industry on the definition (see below), but they need to get the language introduced.
One option would be a new stand-alone bill, but getting that introduced would require approval from the House and Senate leaders...and marijuana issues aren't exactly at the top of the priority list as the legislature tackles a public-health and economic crisis. The more realistic goal, according to lobbyist Samantha Walsh, is attaching the definition as an amendment to a bill already in the General Assembly. A proposal aligning Colorado's state hemp laws with the federal rules is a candidate, as is another measure updating Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies regulations.
"The impetus to get some sort of social equity definition out the door is critical right now," Walsh says, pointing to the state's new marijuana delivery and hospitality licenses, as well as Denver's small handful of new dispensary and cultivation opportunities, as a need for "first-mover advantage."
Woodson and Walsh have been discussing the amendment with the governor's office, and believe they've found an ally in Representative James Coleman.
"We're working on finding a sponsor in the Senate, and we want to make sure this makes sense and is attached to the right vehicle," Woodson says. "It'd be irresponsible not to have one, because then every city or municipality would be left to create their own definition."
Denver recently created amarijuana business advisory group
to evaluate whether and how to opt in to the new delivery and hospitality licenses, with Denver City Council expected to consider allowing both forms of businesses later this year; the group is also reviewing how to distribute the eight dispensary and 42 cultivation locations that are still available under the city's marijuana business cap. The group's stated mission was to have these discussions through a social equity license, according to the city's Office of Marijuana Policy, and Woodson says she's been having discussions with Adams County officials about creating a similar program.
Another new marijuana business license will debut later in 2020 or early next year, this one an accelerator license that allows marijuana entrepreneurs to use the facilities of an existing pot business in a manner similar to a commissary kitchen. Created and sold as a social equity measure, the accelerator license program is only open to those from or living in economically challenged areas in Colorado, but doesn't have any equity definitions attached to it.
All of the new licenses represent a chance for minority business owners to jump into the legal marijuana industry, according to Cannabis Consumers Coalition director Larisa Bolivar. That's why she hired marijuana lobbyist Cindy Sovine to help push the definition at the legislature before the new business opportunities become available.
"There will be more opportunity in the cannabis industry in the next year than we have seen since legalization in 2012. We hope the governor and the legislature will work with us to put these consensus-based definitions in statute now; otherwise, local governments will have no tools to prioritize social equity applicants," Bolivar predicts. "These new opportunities include delivery and consumption licenses statewide, as well as the marijuana lottery and hemp processing licenses set to open up in Denver in 2021."
The amendment being shopped around by Walsh and Sovine would create a definition for social equity, but not any initiatives or programs (though it could be applied to the accelerator license through state rulemaking). Black Cannabis Equity Initiative founder John Bailey, wary of mixed results in social equity programs in California and Massachusetts, says he'd be happy to see a definition established, but would want more of a commitment to diversity from the marijuana industry.
"Without a doubt, I'm supporting where they're coming from. But if we have deliveries, I want a [social equity] fund. I want a cannabis control commission statewide," he explains. "Once the legislature votes on a definition, then what? Where's the serious commitment from the industry?"
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Walsh, Woodson and Bolivar agree that truly comprehensive legislative language regarding social equity would require its own bill — something they were pushing before the legislature was shut down.
"Anything that has money attached to it is likely going to have to wait until next year," Woodson says.