Representative James Coleman says that he will introduce the bill in the House "no later than" today, June 9. According to Coleman, the bill would only create a definition for a social equity marijuana applicant, and would not include any provisions for new diversity programs or initiatives. However, the draft would change new marijuana accelerator licenses intended for entrepreneurs from low-income areas to "social equity" licenses, as well as update the qualifications.
As state lawmakers grapple with state budget cuts, COVID-19 relief packages and police reforms, bills pertaining to marijuana have little chance of passing this year if they carry a fiscal impact, which is why Coleman kept his proposal limited. Although he received the go-ahead to introduce the measure late in the legislative session and also has support from Governor Jared Polis's administration, he's not calling this a win yet. The bill still doesn't have a sponsor in the Colorado Senate, and the clock is ticking on the 2020 session.
"My concern is whether we have enough time. I know this isn't the priority right now. We have to get the school finance bill passed and the overall budget taken care of," Coleman says. "COVID-19 is primarily a health pandemic, but it's also an economic pandemic."
Several marijuana business organizations persuaded Coleman of the need for a firm definition as local governments consider their own marijuana diversity programs. The definition, intended to help those impacted by the War on Drugs to participate in the pot industry, deems that an applicant for future social equity programs must be a Colorado resident who has been arrested for or convicted of a marijuana offense, was subject to civil asset forfeiture related to a marijuana investigation, or has lived in a designated zone of low economic opportunity or high crime; anyone with a family member who has been subject to marijuana-related offenses would also be eligible, as would applicants living under an as-yet-to-be determined level of household income.
Proponents of the definition had planned on attaching it as an amendment to bills concerning state and federal hemp policy and outdoor marijuana growing, but the marijuana growing bill was killed last week, and the hemp policy measure proved too tricky to align with marijuana industry regulations.
"We just want to make sure this is a fair, equitable industry," Coleman explains. "We had another bill we were going to attach this to, but that had a very specific focus, so instead of attaching it there, we drafted a separate bill."
With recent reports from the City of Denver and the state Marijuana Enforcement Division both showing that ownership in Colorado's marijuana industry is overwhelmingly white, minority advocates want an eligibility definition in place as newly legal marijuana delivery and hospitality business licenses become available in towns that allow them. Only a handful of municipalities have broached the topics so far, but other metro communities are expected to start the conversation later this year.
Denver, the biggest market, has already started considering both delivery and hospitality, and city officials say they plan on implementing some form of social equity structure for future marijuana licensing.
While Coleman's bill wouldn't create new social equity initiatives, through the social equity definition it would add a micro-dispensary license and additional opportunities to qualify for the state's marijuana accelerator program, which allows entrepreneurs to use the facilities of an existing pot business in a manner similar to a commissary kitchen; the accelerator license program was originally open only to those from or living in economically challenged areas in Colorado. In addition to updating and renaming the accelerator program, the measure would cut licensing fees for social equity applicants.
Update: This article was updated at 3 p.m. June 9 to include information about proposed changes to the state's marijuana licensing acceleration program.