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Residents Demand Diversity in Cannabis Industry at LA Town Hall

About 150 people gathered at the Expo Center in Los Angeles on Friday for what area Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer called the “first of several” conversations about the launch of adult-use cannabis in the state.

While there been a slew of such meetings in recent months, this one in particular focused on what has become one of LA residents’ chief concerns around what’s expected to be a multi-billiondollar industry: diversity.

“The war on drugs has really been a war on communities of color,” acknowledged Jones-Sawyer, an African-American lawmaker who said he prides himself on coming from a long line of “pioneers in the civil rights movement.”

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Jones-Sawyer’s 59th Assembly district comprises large populations of black and Latino constituents, and when it comes to the cannabis industry, he’s made a name for himself as a voice for minorities in the fight for equity. At Friday’s hearing, he explained that he got involved in the development of medical cannabis regulations in order to ensure the rules didn’t exacerbate the drug war’s disproportionate toll on people of color but instead worked to “unwind all the damage.”

Speaking to his South LA constituency, he alternated between lighthearted stoner jokes and nuts-and-bolts policy prescriptions. And while he emphasized that he stands in solidarity with the marijuana biz, he made clear he no longer partakes.

“First disclosure,” he said with a laugh, “I have not smoked weed since 1979.”

Jones-Sawyer was joined by Lori Ajax, head of the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, as well as representatives from other state agencies including the California Department of Public Health and Go-Biz, the governor’s office of business and economic development.

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Ajax applauded LA residents’ passion and engagement, noting the capacity crowd that showed up for a regulatory hearing a few weeks prior and offered copious feedback.

Jones-Sawyer urged community members to continue participating, calling them his “soldiers and advocates” in helping move legalization forward and ensure a fair outcome. “We get so afraid of the form and the bureaucracy and going into the building, we end up not participating at all,” he said.

Friday’s meeting stuck mostly to brass tacks, providing a ground-floor, how-to guide for community members keen on entering the industry.

Jones-Sawyer encouraged would-be business owners to consider seeking cultivation licenses and opening up production on Alameda Street, an avenue that runs through his district and is currently home to one of the largest collections of cannabis manufacturers in the state, making it a prime location for opening a new grow.

Ajax detailed an application system being developed by the state that will allow people to apply for a license and pay fees online, then be alerted via email when the application is approved or denied. From there, applicants could simply print out their licenses. “Hopefully it’s going to be as easy as that,” Ajax said.

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The goal is that applicants will be able to submit applications in advance of Jan. 1, 2018, which is when adult-use stores are scheduled to open. Ajax called that an “aggressive goal” but said it was one that will give the state some lead time to work out kinks, train staff, and streamline the system. “We don’t want holdups in the supply chain,” she said. “That’s the worst thing that could happen.”

But attendees seemed less concerned with program logistics and more focused on equity. During public comments, many raised the issue of minority ownership in the industry and asked for concrete strategies to ensure that marginalized groups get a fair shot at profiting from legalization.

In attendance was Virgil Grant, co-founder of a pair of cannabis trade groups, the Southern California Coalition and the California Minority Alliance. Grant and his organizations have been working closely with the LA city officials to develop an equity program at the local level—although the city’s current draft regulations don’t include any details about the program.

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Grant emphasized to state regulators that the equity program must be incorporated from the get-go.

“We don’t want it to be an afterthought,” he said.

In addition to diversity-focused efforts, attendees also suggested a range of other initiatives for the new industry. One suggested a “Share-a-Bud” concept, where retailers could donate cannabis to homeless residents who can’t afford medical marijuana. In return, the commenter proposed, those businesses could list the expense as a tax write-off.

Others brought up the needs of veterans in the industry, since federal assistance programs can’t be used for cannabis. While California hasn’t set aside specific funds for vets, regulators are giving them priority status when it comes to licensing.

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Although Jones-Sawyer lives in and represents Los Angeles, he took a few jabs at local handling of cannabis issues. He implored law enforcement, for example, to stop hassling legal dispensaries and instead focus on the estimated 1,400 illegal ones that continue to operate.

He also said he’s not worried about federal law enforcement, despite indications that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is eyeing a crackdown on state-legal cannabis. California—led by “tip of the spear” State Attorney General Xavier Becerra—is ready for that fight.

“If they come in,” he said of the feds, “they’re going to get more than what why bargained for.”