Who Should Benefit From Denver's Social Equity Program?

Denver's marijuana industry struggles to cultivate diversity, according to a recent city report.EXPAND
Denver's marijuana industry struggles to cultivate diversity, according to a recent city report.
Scott Lentz
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As Denver crafts a marijuana social equity licensing program, it's juggling many questions and some shaky examples.

Shortly after a new report was released showing that Denver's marijuana industry is predominantly owned and staffed by white people, the city's Marijuana Licensing Work Group met on June 25 for the last of four scheduled meetings to come up with recommendations for future marijuana social equity and licensing policy, which will ultimately go to Denver City Council for a final decision.

Coming up with a winning plan that will both make it through council and survive court challenges won't be easy, though. Of the ten social equity programs cited as examples by the group during its most recent session, four — in the city of Los Angeles, in the states of Missouri and Ohio, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts — are currently suspended because of pending lawsuits.

But Colorado House Bill 1424, which passed the legislature this year and creates an applicant definition for the state's current marijuana business accelerator licenses and its future social equity programs, could provide useful guidance for local programs like Denver's.

Under the state definition, in order to be eligible, an applicant 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 a yet-to-be-determined level of household income.

Although state definition provides an example for Denver, several MLWG members, including Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, would prefer that the city take its own path.

"We have the largest portion of the state's share of people of color. While at the state level, it's broader to include more people from those in rural areas, I think that at the local level, it's important to be as explicit as possible," CdeBaca said, taking issue with a state provision that will allow those below a certain income level to qualify as a marijuana social equity applicant.

According to the councilwoman, those born into privileged households could qualify for social equity program benefits after moving away from home but while still receiving financial help from their families. "That's often what we see with a lot of affordable housing," she added.

Advocates for the state bill who are also in the city work group say that the income stipulation was added to allow more people of color to qualify, and argued that by eliminating income as a qualifier, social equity programs might be less successful. "If you do that, there will be black and brown people who will not qualify for this," argued Sarah Woodson, who pushed for HB 1424 at the legislature.

The number of marijuana business licenses set aside for social equity applicants creates other limits. Only eight dispensaries and 52 grows are still available under the city's marijuana business cap, though upcoming pot delivery and hospitality licenses could provide more opportunity for diverse ownership.

"There should be no new licenses [issued] until equity licenses have been dealt with. Unless you change the culture, all of this is good conversation for nothing," John Bailey, director of the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative, told the group.

According to Denver Excise and Licenses Deputy Director Molly Duplechian, city staffers will take "six to eight weeks" to go over MLWG meeting notes and proposals before reconvening the group's members to craft recommendations for the city.

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