The Time Has Come for Cannabis Equity

“The fight that was happening in New York — the whole nation was watching to see how that was gonna fall, and whether or not true equity was going to win that fight.”


As cannabis legalization enters its newest phase with social equity dominating the conversation, Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law hosted an advocate and regulator-packed panel to map out a path to  Social Equity 2.0.

The Tri-State was well represented on the panel. Incoming New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission chair Dianna Houenou spoke to how the issue had been embedded from the start in her new state agency. Minority Cannabis Business Association President Jason Ortiz spoke about the current effort in Connecticut to put equity front and center in the conversation. 

The pair were joined by Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker’s senior advisor for cannabis control, Toi Hutchinson, and former Massachusetts Cannabis Commission member Shaleen Title. Both have championed the issue in their respective states over the years. Politico’s Natalie Fertig led the conversation. 

New Jersey
The talk got local quickly with Houenou offering a  fresh perspective on bringing equity to New Jersey by learning from five years of effort elsewhere around the country. “Our cannabis Regulatory Commission is just over two weeks old. We just launched. Not long ago, we had our first public meeting on April 12. And then our second public meeting just last week, so we are hitting the ground running here,” she said.

Houenou related that even with the excitement and pace of change in New Jersey, a large part of the job has been about managing expectations and facilitating the wider public conversation. Houenou wants to emphasize to stakeholders that the new agency’s goal is to get the ball rolling on important relationships at every level. Before becoming a regulator in New Jersey, she was an advocate who watched equity percolate into the cannabis mainstream and now she said that she was most struck by the pace of change in the conversation.“These are years-long efforts, but it has surprised me how quickly the social equity component has felt sped up and become a requirement, and a far-reaching requirement,” Houenou said, “But in a very short time, it has become so much more than that in the public discourse. And it has really become mandates for aggressive reinvestment in communities and restoring communities. Making them whole again. And really acknowledging the fact that it’s not just like cannabis legalization isn’t going to cure or solve systemic oppression, it’s not going to tackle 90 years of damage that was done by the war on drugs.”

One benefit of the New Jersey legalization plan is that Houenou has essentially been given a blank slate to create the most workable program possible. While the panel’s name — Social Equity 2.0 is very apt — the process will be encumbered by already existing layers of state bureaucracy. 

But there is hope for progress: Stakeholder input on equity issues will be the main topic at the next meeting of the New Jersey commission. 

After many years involved in wider drug policy issues following a cannabis arrest as a teenager, Jason Ortiz found himself involved in the early east coast conversation around equity. From the time Supernova Women originally introduced the idea at a Boston event in 2016, Ortiz would have a seat at the table with folks who were moving on the equity idea. 

As the earliest equity debates played out on the west coast, MCBA released its model language in 2017. Over the years as the legalization battle moved from state to state, the local MCBA coalition would fan the flames of equity into the roaring fire that is now intertwined with the national legalization conversation. “And quite frankly, any bill that doesn’t have equity is not going to be able to pass moving forward,” Ortiz said. He believes that legislators of color have begun to communicate with each other and work together to say, “if there’s no equity it’s not happening.” He’s watching that very battle play out now in Connecticut. “We are exactly in that position right now. There are two bills, one that is very focused on cannabis equity, that was drafted by myself and State Representative Robin Porter of New Haven, HB 6377,” Ortiz explained, “There’s been a whole lot of press over the last few months because we’re competing with SB 888, which is Governor Lamont’s bill.”

Advocates who had been working on the cannabis equity issue in Connecticut were shocked to see what Lamont first brought to the table. It seemed an attempt to reduce equity to a figurehead. “When the governor’s effort was first introduced it had equity in the title but to the distress of advocates it didn’t actually define equity in the bill,” Ortiz said, “That was not something that was received well by the folks that were paying attention and so we’ve definitely been having a very concrete conversation on the details — but it is one in which the equity applicants are the go-to faction that must be appeased for legalization to happen.” 

Ortiz argued that this is an incredibly different power position than five years ago. He noted one of the most important fights through the entire process is the definition of equity applicants. He argued that success would be measured by clearly identifying how the programs work and who would have access to them — he hopes to look back and see that the communities who were intended to benefit actually did so. 

One of the things that Ortiz and all advocates are constantly struggling with is how wide to make the definition of the typical equity applicant. It’s essentially a catch-22, where more communities are ideally included, but without diluting the available resources so that those who do take part can be successful. Ortiz noted that while the social justice arguments around cannabis, race, and equity have been successful, helping communities impacted by the drug war find their own piece of the industry is more complex. 

Hutchinson, like Houenou, spoke to the layers of bureaucracy she had to deal with in Illinois. While much of the chat focused on the business side of policy and equity, Hutchinson pointed out that past offenders face many challenges in clearing their records — a vital first step toward improving their quality of life in this new age of legal cannabis. 

“We have 102 counties, we have 102 different states attorneys,” Hutchinson said, “There are a bunch of them that are like, ‘You broke the law, it was illegal when they did it, there’s no reason we need to go back and undo this,’ and they actively fight against some of these things.”

Local newspaper records in smaller towns and rural areas are significant. Hutchinson found that  places more off the beaten path by Illinois standards tend to have hostile state attorneys and court systems, “that don’t want to work with this.”

Even with the power of Code For America helping the state clear many records swiftly, smaller municipalities might well argue they don’t have the manpower and resources to finish the job. 

But even so, Hutchinson had an open-door policy on bringing those naysayers, excuse finders, and less traditional individual rights allies into the conversation. “I’m looking for all those folks to create relationships with,” she said, “When you come to the criminal justice space, like, I don’t care if you’re coming because you realize it is too expensive, the way we did it. Or if you’re coming in because you realize we’ve been essentially lynching black and brown bodies. How you get to the conversation, I don’t care. Just come to the conversation.”

Hutchinson said that not all the components needed to fix all these people’s lives are in one place, pointing out that it’s not as if a governor or legislature can address the past inequities, and simply say, “ ‘You know what, it’s all gone now.’ That’s not the way it works.” She said all of it is a constant reminder to people undoing 90 years of disproportionately targeting people of color. “The reason it’s called systemic and structural racism is because it’s built into the fabric and the structure of our systems, and dismantling that requires multiple bites of the apple —  constant staying on top of it,” Hutchinson said, “We all have to understand the systems produce what they are designed to produce.”

Shaleen Title has been one of the main voices on equity issues for years and helped make it a keystone of the implementation conversation in Massachusetts after voters decided to legalize. Even with all the progress, she thought it was important to remind people that despite the money and some control of the narrative, the execution component is far from perfect. “I just want to note for Social Equity 2.0, you now have the data from Massachusetts, California and so many other places,” Title said. She then pointed out that this information continues to show that this growing industry is, “at best, very disproportionately favoring white people and not diverse enough and not really reaching this goal.”

Title hopes people will reflect on early lessons to build something better for this new era of social equity in the cannabis industry. “Don’t just copy ours,” Title said, “I think the one deal-breaker, not to be a broken record is, don’t allow corporations to get too big. Put strict limits on that. And the nice thing is, we have language in Massachusetts that evolved over the years, that’s one of the few things that I would say you can just copy it wholesale.” Politico’s Fertig noted that the Massachusetts program took a lot of flack early on and that while more people are getting their foot in the door, it is still not enough.  

Title pointed out that there was still much to figure out, but that the equity programs were helping people of color and women-owned businesses, adding, “It’s not enough, but the rate is rapidly accelerating and what is important about those limits, is it kind of saved us that we had them in place because the bigger corporations got as big as they could get very very quickly, and then they had to kind of pause there.” Preventing the big fish from eating up the entire industry gave Mass regulators time to help the other companies that are starting from so much further back. “So you know I would have done it differently, of course, if I could, but I still think like having those limits in place saved us, and that’s why I say it’s the one thing that is a deal-breaker,” Title said. 

New York’s Impact
After the group finished, we chatted with Ortiz about how recent events in New York are now playing into the local and national equity conversation. “The fight that was happening in New York … the whole nation was watching to see how that was gonna fall, and whether or not true equity was going to win that fight — and it did, right?” Ortiz told the Voice, adding, “And so, the momentum that it gives equity throughout the nation is just incredible and it’s immediately crossing over into Connecticut, and now Connecticut policies are changing.”

We asked Ortiz if watching what happened in New York turned the Connecticut plan into something more equitable. “Oh absolutely,” he replied, ”We saw the fight over what community investment means. How many licenses should we give to equity applicants, all of those conversations I was having with the governor’s office. But when New York finally did it, it affirmed that the equity movement has the correct approach. There’s a lot of work put into it, a lot of investigation and it’s just better policy.”

Ortiz added that without a doubt, New York represents the best model in the northeast for trying to clean up the mess the drug war left behind: “We’ll start to see the implementation of what they put on paper, but it’s clear they intended to advance the cause of equity and all of New England really should be looking to New York, as far as what the bare minimum will be and how far we can take it, because they took it pretty far.”   ❖


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