After a brief delay concerning advocates, Connecticut’s Cannabis Social Equity Program looks to be back on track with the 15-member Social Equity Council meeting for the first time Thursday.
One of the main actions the group took at its first meeting was to approve the methodology used to determine which areas in the state could be disproportionately impacted by the so-called “war on drugs.” This critical step was a priority for the Governor’s office in order to keep the industry on schedule to open next year.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, people were not impressed with the situation. The meeting for today wasn’t on advocates’ radar and things looked to be going the way they have for so many social equity programs around the country as they began to hit their first roadblocks over the years. It’s certainly understandable why tensions were high in those moments.
Back when Connecticut first crossed the finish line, longtime local drug policy advocate Jason Ortiz, who also helped found the Minority Cannabis Business Association, gave us the stakeholders’ take. And a big clear part of it was that social equity is now always going to be a dealbreaker in the way cannabis moved forward in the state. As he spoke with us ahead of word of the final appointments and meeting schedule, he was quick to remind all of the promises lawmakers made.
Even if the meeting did happen, the points Ortiz raised about what delays will mean to the program, especially step by step, are still completely valid. Appropriately, we started with some folks staying positive about the delay. Part of the argument is the idea that the extra time would lead to better appointments or a more efficient Social Equity Program as opposed to something that might end up looking hurried.
“That is a really rosy way of framing missing a deadline for sure,” Ortiz said, “I can’t say that they’re wrong in that, that would be better than just throwing people on it right? But that’s not really the option here. There are countless qualified people.”
A big concern about delays is it presses social equity operators even harder against deadlines without the same resources their competition has. It’s like setting someone up to have an advantage in the market but the final challenge is a round of trick shots with The Harlem Globetrotters. Some would argue those kind of challenges represent a lack of commitment to equity
“So that commit was spelled out in the law,” Ortiz said, “So in order to get the deal over the hill they put August 1st as the date that the map was supposed to be released. So now the first deadline is being ignored. I’m not sure I would take one deadline being ignored as a sign they’ll do the further deadlines in the future any better. I get nervous if the easy one is ignored. We’re not even in the hard part yet.”
We asked Ortiz: as someone who has watched equity programs derail state by state, is it tough to now watch the same situation play out at home despite the lessons he brought into the process in the first place?
“Yeah, and the delay is something I brought to the legislature, personally, maybe 30 different times about the timeline matters, and whether or not your equity programs are going to be successful,” Ortiz replied.
When we asked Ortiz his thoughts on who seemed like they had the best grip on the situation, he replied that the Department of Consumer Protection understands the deadlines the most but they’re in no position to do anything about it. But with a slew of appointments on Wednesday, Thursday morning would see Andrea Comer, the DCP’s Interim Deputy Commissioner, chair the first meeting of the Social Equity Council.
In addition to the rundowns on expected topics like the group breaking into committees between its monthly scheduled meetings and when the group will regularly convene as a whole, the Governor’s Office pressed the group to take action on the missed deadline.
Patrick Cullen, Governor Ned Lamont’s Associate Policy Director, urged the council to move forward. “This is the first task that has real legal effects,” Cullen said. Cullen went on to explain the data model to the council that was used to make the geographic decisions on who in Connecticut would qualify for social equity programs. Essentially the first action the council needed to take was to certify the list of areas produced by the data model.
After a discussion led by Chairwoman Comer’s (and her theme of not letting the perfect get in the way of the good), the council certified the locations on the list. They plan on taking a much deeper look into the criteria though now that the body exists. Shawn Wooden, Connecticut State Treasurer, was uneasy with the idea of using unemployment rates to show which communities had been hit the hardest by the drug war. But like the Chairwoman, he admitted things were going in the right direction and voted in support.
A couple hours removed from the meeting we reached back out to Ortiz to get his take on how it all went. He was cautiously optimistic.
“While the discussion of the map was definitely rushed, the state of CT is now very explicitly creating pathways for prosperity and that’s is a huge step toward justice,” Ortiz said. “Now let’s make sure we take two steps forward and never go back.”
In the end, Ortiz assures all that legal cannabis won’t reach the finish line next May in Connecticut without the promises made on social equity being kept. ❖