Inside Polis's $5 Million Plan for Marijuana Social Equity

Governor Jared Polis tours a marijuana growing operation in 2018.
Governor Jared Polis tours a marijuana growing operation in 2018. Kenzie Bruce
Governor Jared Polis wants to see $5 million put in a new state fund intended to advance marijuana industry involvement among communities impacted by the War on Drugs, with the majority of that money going toward small grants and low-interest loans.

The proposal for the Cannabis Advance Program (renamed from the Cannabis Opportunity Program, or COP), written by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade in conjunction with the governor's office, was created after a bill passed in the Colorado Legislature in 2020 offered an official definition for social equity applicants in the marijuana industry. However, the bill only defined those applicants, and didn't mandate any specific programs they could apply for, much less their fiscal impacts.

Polis's initial suggestion — using $150,000 to hire a new OEDIT employee tasked with evaluating the need for marijuana social equity in Colorado — quickly faced backlash from industry stakeholders who said that would just delay the process. The figure to get the program going then bounced up to around $3 million, and eventually to $5 million by the time it reached the State Legislative Joint Budget Committee, which is expected to vote on the proposal sometime this week.

"The purpose of the Cannabis Advancement Program is to support the creation and growth of social equity cannabis businesses and support organizations and further establish Colorado as the leader in the cannabis industry," the proposal reads. "Keeping in step with OEDIT’s other business support and business development programs, the Cannabis Advancement Program is a combination of technical assistance and access to capital for social equity licensees."

Westword obtained a copy of the proposal, which isn't deep on details but does provide a sense of where the money would go, with $3 to $3.5 million allocated for a micro-loan fund "designed to facilitate the launch and growth of early stage cannabis businesses owned and operated by 'social equity licensees.'" The proposal suggests that those loans could run from $50,000 to $100,000 with low interest, but OEDIT recommends leaving the exact figures up to local discretion; the money would be used to pay for rent, leases, legal and state licensing fees, equipment, seed capital and other ongoing operational costs.

The proposal calls for another $1 million to $1.5 million for grants to social-equity businesses and cannabis business support organizations, with the amount per grant listed as "TBD." Entities receiving the grants would be "seeking to innovate and expand" the marijuana industry while also creating new jobs, according to the proposal.

The final ask — $250,000 to $500,000 for a technical assistance program — would support the new business owners by providing help with creating business plans, as well as operational consultations and other services.

How the grant or loan money will be doled out would be decided by OEDIT. Polis's office would prefer the funds be sent to local government, which would then distribute the money to awardees, but marijuana industry members would rather see it go directly to them; they've expressed concerns that relying on local governments might only add more red tape.

According to OEDIT, around 87 percent of self-reporting marijuana owners in Colorado identify as white. The first state to allow recreational pot sales, Colorado has been criticized in recent years for not building in more business ownership opportunities for communities impacted by the War on Drugs. The state-approved social-equity definition would give priority to entrepreneurs who can prove they were negatively impacted by the War on Drugs, earn less than 50 percent of the state median income, or come from a community designated as a low-economic opportunity zone by OEDIT. However, local governments can also create their own social equity definitions.

So far, Aurora is the only Colorado city to officially approve marijuana social equity language; Denver City Council is expected to vote on the issue in the next month or two, according to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell