Illustrations by Brian Blomerth
Is interstate commerce a key to social and economic justice in the cannabis industry?
Over the past several years, a debate about social equity has intensified as large consumer states with unconscionable histories of discriminatory drug law enforcement have moved towards adult-use cannabis legalization. How can we ensure that the economic benefits of legalization reaches the people and communities most harmed by the War on Drugs? Is it possible, in a newly legal industry, to account for justice?
What if there were a way to turn the economics of the cannabis industry on its head in soon-to-be-legal states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut? What if, instead of handing huge profits to a few large corporations that are able to pour billions of dollars into wasteful and unsustainable cannabis production schemes in those states, we could put economic power into the hands of people and communities most harmed by a century of prohibition?
Perhaps we can.
The concept is simple. Traditional cannabis importing states, especially states with long histories of racially-biased criminalization and enforcement (basically all of them), should create a class of cannabis licenses that would allow licensees to import, distribute, and sell at retail cannabis from producer states like Oregon and California. And these licenses would only be available to qualified social equity applicants.
Under such a system, equity-licensed businesses — and only equity-licensed businesses — in large consumer states like New York and New Jersey could fill retail shelves with an unbeatable selection of the best cannabis products from legal markets around the country. And they could offer those products almost immediately upon their state’s legalization.
“This would alter the entire economic structure of the cannabis industry,” says Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA). “Those equity licensees wouldn’t just compete, they would dominate the industries in traditional import states. This concept promises economic justice at a much more significant scale than anything we’re currently discussing at the state level.”
Between 1994 and 2008, in New York City alone, more than 430,000 people were arrested for low-level cannabis offenses. And despite the fact that people of color are no more likely to use or sell cannabis than white residents, they accounted for more than 85% of those arrested. Flashforward a decade, and the data is no different. In the first half of 2019, New York City