The Evolution of Equity

Friday’s ‘Cannabis Equity Summit’ in Oakland was a reminder of how much work is yet to be done.

On Friday at Oakland’s New Parish, the power was with the people.

The panel assembled for the evening’s “Cannabis Equity Summit” included attorneys, activists, and members of the cannabis industry, all united in their goal to see those adversely affected by marijuana prohibition be given a fair chance to thrive in the new regulated market. Over the course of 90 minutes, panelists spoke on issues that ranged from financing and bad actors within the equity structure to California’s latest round of emergency regulations, issued just that morning.

Leading the panel was Nina Parks, who was previously noted in this column as a member of Supervisor Malia Cohen’s cannabis equity forum held in the Bayview in October. As moderator, Parks welcomed a group uniquely qualified to speak on the successes and hardships of the equity-permitting programs in place in Oakland and San Francisco.

As a reminder, the equity-permitting process allows qualified individuals to receive recreational or medical cannabis licenses at an expedited rate, plus free retail space and technical support. These incubation periods last three years, hopefully providing enough time for the new business owner to get their business up and running.

To qualify in Oakland, the city’s website states that applicants must “either have a cannabis conviction in Oakland after Nov. 5, 1996, or have lived for 10 of the last 20 years in the police beats with a disproportionately higher number of cannabis-related arrests.” They must also “show an annual income at or less than 80 percent of the 2016 Oakland Average Medium Income (AMI) thresholds.” In San Francisco, candidates are required to meet three criteria from six possible options, which include income requirements, having spent at least five years in the SFUSD system, and more. Raeven Duckett sat on the panel as someone who has found success as an equity operator. Her company, Community Gardens, was the first business in Oakland (and third in all of California) to receive a license to recreationally sell edibles, tinctures, and flower to adults.

She says her incubators — which include local industry heavyweights like Jetty Extracts — have supported Community Gardens, but that not all equity operators she’s spoken with have been so lucky.

“I came to the industry because it seemed like a lot of fun,” Duckett told the crowd. “I’m here today because it’s so important. We’ve had a great experience — what I imagine the city of Oakland was hoping for when they established this program — but that hasn’t been the case for everyone.”

Attorney Kyndra Miller of CannaBusiness Law, Inc. echoed Duckett’s sentiments, and emphasized that government efforts alone will not be enough when it comes to balancing the industry, to ensure that it isn’t only the rich and privileged who have the opportunity to participate.

“The government is only going to do so much,” Miller warned. “The rest is up to us. What we need is capital — which is another way of saying money. We need financiers. I have equity applicants who tell me they have the space but don’t have the money to get the business off the ground. What good is the space without the money to operate?”

At one point, a small debate occurred over whether equity permitting equated to reparations. (This had recently come up in the New York governor’s race, after actor and candidate Cynthia Nixon was criticized for such a comparison, which some observers called a regrettable choice of words.) Many panelists indicated their preference to avoid the term, instead suggesting the phrase “restorative justice” may be more apt. “These aren’t reparations,” Parks explained, “because no resources are being provided — just a pathway.”

Money was a recurring theme. While equity operators like Duckett remain hopeful that zero-interest loans will become part of the program and thus enable more disenfranchised individuals to enter the regulated cannabis market, such opportunities have yet to materialize. Reflecting on San Francisco’s own efforts to bring equity to the industry was Eugene Hillsman, deputy director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis.

Asked what he wanted to see for the industry in five years, his response spoke to the importance of establishing lasting infrastructure as a means of long-term success.

“It’s not how many businesses get permits in year one,” Hillsman said, “but how many businesses are up and running in year five. I also want San Francisco to be a trendsetter for other places that aren’t in cannabis yet.”

Miller’s answer was to see more women-owned businesses, and especially more women farmers. She also noted that the primary objective must remain the end of federal prohibition, and pointed toward the Marijuana Justice Act currently championed by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in both houses of Congress.

Duckett’s wish was simple — but no less important.

“I’d like a bank account,” she said with a resigned laugh. “I want to not get called by banks telling me they’re shutting down my accounts and to come get my money.”

Overall, the mood on Friday night was one of cautious optimism. While major barriers remain, the panel seemed dedicated in their mission to ensure equity permitting systems aren’t merely a means of placating outrage but instead a viable and vital aspect of the cannabis industry’s future.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. | @zackruskin

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