Repair, Restore, Reclaim Series Part 1: Stop Excluding People with Cannabis Convictions from the Industry

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During this four-part series, join Marijuana Matters as we break down the regulatory barriers to social equity in the cannabis industry. This is part 1.

“Permitting those who have demonstrated the interest and willingness to ignore state and federal drug laws sends the wrong signals to those who would participate in the legal, regulated industry.” — Robert Mayerson, CEO of Patriot Care

Robert Mayerson’s words tell on themselves.

In early 2017, Mayerson wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Public Health Commission urging the exclusion of people with cannabis convictions from the state’s medical marijuana industry. His plea ignored the irony of his own participation in an industry that remains illegal at the federal level. This hypocrisy is not surprising. The inclination to further marginalize people who have already been targeted by racist policies is exactly how a system built on racism is supposed to work.

Excluding people who have been arrested for or convicted of obsolete cannabis laws is a racist policy. That’s why it disproportionately impacts Black people, who are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. Given that Black people consume cannabis at almost the same rate as white people, the only explanation for this disproportionate rate is racism.

In fact, the origins of cannabis criminalization are steeped in anti-Mexican and anti-Black beliefs. It wasn’t until cannabis became associated with Mexican immigrants and Black jazz musicians in the twentieth century that it became a moral or criminal problem worth legislating.

Legalizing cannabis possession while ignoring the predominantly Black and Brown people currently sitting in jails and prisons — some who are serving life sentences — for non-violent cannabis crimes is a continuation of this structural racism.

Allowing the ownership of the legal cannabis industry to fall into predominantly white hands without addressing the cannabis prohibition-created poverty affecting predominantly Black and Brown communities is an extension of structural racism.

Denial is willful ignorance. The alternative is simple: change the policies. Stop excluding people with cannabis convictions from the industry. Instead, proactively include them.

Social Equity Spotlight: These Regulatory Programs Center Those with Cannabis Convictions

Racist policies persist, but, as the following jurisdictions demonstrate through their cannabis social equity programs, so does the fight for racial justice. While neither prescriptive nor perfect, these examples give practical material to the anti-racist imagination.

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Illinois’ adult use cannabis law mandates a social equity program providing training and financial assistance to eligible applicants. Individuals who have been arrested or convicted of certain non-violent cannabis crimes are eligible. Family members of such individuals are also eligible.

The law also allows the following criminal record adjustments:

· Immediate expungement of arrests that did not lead to a conviction for the non-violent possession, manufacture, and/or intent to deliver up to 30 grams of cannabis or less

· Expungement of convictions for the nonviolent possession, manufacture, and/or intent to deliver up to 30 grams of cannabis

· Vacated convictions for possession of up to 500 grams of cannabis


The Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts created its Social Equity Program to address social inequity created by the war on drugs. The program provides access to free technical assistance, training, and tools to eligible applicants.

A criterion for eligibility is a conviction or continuance without a finding for certain non-violent cannabis offenses. The spouse or child of a person meeting this criterion is also eligible.

Benefits of the program include the following:

· Free training

· Expedited review of application

· Waived application and regulatory fees

· Exclusive access to Delivery-Only and Social Consumption license types for a limited time

· 50% reduction of annual license renewal fees


To qualify for the City of Oakland’s Equity Permit Program, applicants must have received a cannabis conviction after November 5, 1996 or have lived in an area with disproportionately higher rates of cannabis arrests for 10 of the past 20 years.

Oakland’s Equity Permit Program offers the following benefits:

· Prioritized permitting

· Technical training and assistance

· Application and permit fee exemptions

· Access to loan and grant programs

· Free legal services

Focus on Solutions

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Photo courtesy of @cannaclusive

Changing policy is the primary way to eliminate structural racism in the cannabis industry. To address inequities caused by excluding those with cannabis convictions from the industry, policy makers can focus on these solutions:

· Make social equity a statewide/nationwide priority. Local jurisdictions (like Oakland) should retain the right to make their programs even more inclusive, but there should be a macrolevel mandate for social equity.

· Expunge cannabis-related criminal records. A criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment, housing, and financial assistance for educational or entrepreneurial purposes. Failing to expunge these records while legalizing cannabis keeps the outcomes of structural racism intact.

· Use targeted language. Define social equity eligibility in a way that specifically includes people disproportionately arrested and/or convicted by cannabis prohibition. This inclusion should extend to family members.

· Increase access to capital. Poverty is a collateral consequence of cannabis criminalization. Give victims of cannabis criminalization access to exclusive funding programs and fee reductions.

The private sector has an essential role to play in the removal of structural racism as well. The economic relationships formed between consumers and businesses shape culture. Consumerism has the potential to create both racist and anti-racist ideas which can lead to racist or antiracist policies. Social equity-minded businesses can focus on these solutions:

· Partner with businesses owned by disproportionately impacted individuals. Promote a healthy, equitable cannabis ecosystem by entering into mutually beneficial contracts with social equity applicants across the supply chain.

· Hire disproportionately impacted individuals. Yes, we’re talking about entry level positions. We’re also talking about your chief executive roles, your managerial staff, and your marketing team.

· Provide livable wages. Under the federal minimum wage, workers cannot afford to live anywhere in the United States without working between 60 and 78 hours a week. Value disproportionately impacted employees with a wage that offers them the dignity of an enjoyable life.

These ideas are meant to initiate serious conversations about promoting social equity in the cannabis space. Whether or not they actually achieve that goal largely depends on who’s doing most of the talking.

Racism will not be solved by a predominantly white group of people making decisions about policies affecting a predominantly Black and Brown group of people. If all of the decisions about how to include people with cannabis arrests or convictions are made by people who neither have nor know anyone who has a cannabis arrest or conviction, the point of inclusion has been lost.

When the decisions addressing inequity in the cannabis industry are made by those most harmed by cannabis criminalization, social equity can truly begin.

Marijuana Matters is a non-profit centering those disadvantaged by the criminalization of marijuana. M2 identifies and eliminates barriers to economic opportunity in the regulated cannabis industry through advocacy, entrepreneurship, and education. Support our work.

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