As San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors continues to hash out just what adult-use cannabis sales will look like for the city, the concept of an equity program is central to the discussion. Partially cribbed from Oakland’s, the San Francisco model consists, at present, of a thousand ideas with few solutions. Conceived as a way to allow those unfairly targeted by past drug policy to enter into the cannabis industry, the idea is compelling in abstract but endlessly complicated in practice.
Dominic Corva, founder of Seattle’s Center for Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, believes the intent of using cannabis reform as a means of providing social justice has been lost, as the power of shaping policy transitioned from a grassroots movement to a larger bureaucratic undertaking.
“The idea was that cannabis legalization was going to help with racial equity,” he says. “That’s how it was sold to the public, but now it’s being implemented by jurisdictions and policymakers that may or may not have an interest in that.”
While racial equality was certainly one of many factors that led to Proposition 64’s inclusion on the ballot last November, its true intentions were complicated as major financial contributions from folks like Sean Parker and George Soros poured in. Parker, of Facebook and Napster fame, donated $7.2 million on the bill’s behalf, while Drug Policy Alliance board member Soros chipped in close to $4 million. Their contributions and public support for Prop. 64 speak to the idea that California’s choice to legalize was inspired less by a desire to protect patients and promote equality, and more because it presented a lucrative opportunity to those with the means to capitalize on it.
It’s not that Parker or Soros specifically weren’t in favor of social justice through cannabis reform — it’s that the notion has quickly become an afterthought as on-demand delivery, corporate farming, and taxes occupy center stage.
Now that San Francisco is finally ready to explore how an equity component can be incorporated into the city’s permitting process, Corva says the biggest obstacle is deciding how to level a playing field that has been historically stacked against low-income and minority individuals.
“They’re running into a problem that is creating the biggest barrier to racial equity,” he explains, “which is that the regulations are so onerous that only people with tons of capital get to really be in business as owners. That has a structural relationship to race, because obviously there’s a huge amount of racial inequity as far as who has financial capital and who has the cultural and political capital. We’re watching the intersection of a class and race issue here.”
The issue Corva lays out is the obstacle that equity programs were ostensibly established to overcome: How do we give someone who has suffered systematic harassment from law enforcement or been incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses a chance to be in business in the cannabis space? Beyond the requisite permits and access to no-interest loans, there will also need to be an infrastructure of education available — business classes, explanations of marijuana-specific regulations like track-and-trace programs, and access to insurance and legal counsel — if San Francisco and other municipalities hope to provide a viable path for success.
Corva notes that Oakland’s solution of an incubator system — where equity candidates are paired with more established cannabis businesses, which, in turn, receive their own permits in expedited fashion — as one way forward.
“It allows for a public-private partnership to happen,” he says, “which may be the only viable way in our current economy for us to do social policy.”
Corva also believes our best chance for viable equity programs and the assimilation of cannabis into the mainstream is to strongly tether the movement to other social justice efforts. While noting the corollary is far from perfect, he points to the efforts of coca growers in Bolivia, who elected one of their own, Evo Morales, in 2006.
“When a coca grower was actually elected president of Bolivia, it was because he was a part of a broader coalition of social movements,” Corva says. “The cannabis business is not. It barely connects with anything else, and that’s why nobody else cares about it. People simply don’t see cannabis culture in its current industry and commercial form as being related to these broader struggles going on against economic and racial inequality.”
Corva sees the building of bridges between cannabis and other socioeconomic issues — like military veterans returning home with PTSD and the ongoing opioid epidemic ravaging parts of the U.S. — as a pivotal step forward in making the public care. By doing so, the infrastructure necessary for equity programs to thrive may be possible.
“The more that this industry is able to connect with solving a lot of these problems by giving back in a way that’s different from simply paying taxes,” he says. “To connect their struggles with others would be helpful. It would be a model that has had prior success.”