California’s Cannabis Equity Act Just Changed the Game

State dollars and personnel will support local programs to keep minorities in cannabis as it is legalized. In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, Andre Shavers, who runs a marijuana delivery business, walks up a street in Oakland, Calif. Oakland's equity program started a national trend. (Eric Risberg/AP)

California took another step this week toward making reparations for its war on marijuana users.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law on Thursday a bill offering small cannabis business assistance to those most impacted by past drug law enforcement. The California Cannabis Equity Act magnifies programs already up and running in cities like San Francisco and Oakland. The programs move prior marijuana offenders to the front of the line for legal retail cannabis sales permits. Starting next year, cities may apply for grants from state marijuana regulators at the Bureau of Cannabis Control to further such efforts. Lawmakers allocated $10 million in initial funding for the bill.

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“It is our hope that this will be the first of many victories to ensure equity in this growing industry,” said Rodney Holcombe, at the office of legal affairs for Drug Policy Alliance, a bill supporter.

The Equity Act bill, by Sen. Steven Bradford, passed both the Senate and the Assembly with super-majority, two-thirds votes, and no stated opposition.

Aiming to Reduce Barriers to Entry

Californians voted in 2016 to legalize, tax and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and older. According to legislative findings, modern cannabis legalization often bans or prices out people who sold, used, and served prison time for cannabis. It can cost $5 million to start a cannabis store, and banks won’t give you loans, for example.

“This barrier to traditional funding places individuals without access to capital at a disadvantage. Starting a business is made even more difficult for individuals with a criminal record. Minorities have been disproportionately affected by the nation’s War on Drugs,” according to the bill’s legislative analysis.

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Los Angeles and Sacramento have mirrored the Bay Area’s unprecedented equity programs, offering criminal records expungement, reduced rent or fees, and technical assistance to qualifying populations. Equity programs have spread cross-country to state laws on the East Coast, including Massachusetts and Baltimore.

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The California Cannabis Equity Act recruits state agencies to support local programs. The state’s small business assistance agency and the Bureau of Cannabis Control will have to chip in, starting with $10 million for grants and state employee time.

Golden State Assistance

The Equity Act’s eligibility guidelines can include things like being:

  • “Demonstrably linked to populations and neighborhoods that were negatively and disproportionately impacted by cannabis-related criminalization.
  • “Was previously arrested or convicted of a cannabis-related charge.
  • Resides in a ZIP Code or census tract with higher than average unemployment, crime, or child death rates.
  • “Attended a low performing K-12 school in or near a federal poverty area for at least four grade levels.
  • “Is economically disadvantaged with an income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and has a net worth below $250,000.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed or vetoed several cannabis bills in the last two weeks, including one expanding cannabis events options.