New Social Equity Legislation in Washington

Even with recent tremendous financial and employment-related hardships upon almost every business that’s a part of every state’s cannabis industry, the massive success of this industry that’s so rapidly become a multi-billion dollar industry must also be acknowledged. In just Colorado alone since their first month of recreational sales in January 2014, The Centennial State has sold a total of over $14 billion dollars in cannabis. In only their first year of sales, Oregon raised close to $1 billion on cannabis and Washington has sold over $9.5 billion in total cannabis since legalizing the same year that Colorado did.

The number of jobs created from the states that have legal cannabis is also astronomical as well. The most recent Leafly Jobs Report estimates that about 428,059 jobs have been created from the cannabis industry and their related ancillary businesses. People from all walks of life and every background have found employment and opportunities in America’s youngest new industry. Even if recent times have been troublesome for cannabis companies throughout America, the economic successes of the cannabis industry can’t be understated.

However, there’s still one civil measure of true cannabis reform that is still in dire need of being implemented in state cannabis industries across the country. One doesn’t have to be an expert in criminal justice and law to understand how absolutely devastating that the blatant trillion-dollar failure that’s called The War on Drugs was for marginalized communities. Particularly within minority and impoverished neighborhoods, hundreds of thousands of people were incarcerated and either given prison sentences so long they were essentially life sentences, or they were eventually released from prison yet cursed with the permanent societal disadvantages of having a drug conviction on their criminal record.

Even with cannabis being fully legal in nearly 21 states now, there’s still thousands of people in those states that still suffer daily from those disadvantages and injustices they faced. Few states with legal cannabis have implemented any semblance of an expungement program for those “offenders” to clear their records and be removed from those ever present societal penalties and as a result, those “offenders” likely can’t even get employment or business ownership opportunities in the field that they were incarcerated for on most occasions.

Yet, a certain number of states are in fact attempting to right the innumerable wrongs of the Drug War in a variety of means. According to Forbes, social equity is defined as “an attempt to ensure that people of color, and those with marijuana offenses prior to legalization, be afforded an opportunity to participate, meaningfully, in this burgeoning industry.”  Social equity policies are a direct method in dealing with the intergenerational and irreparable injustices caused by the Drug War while also giving a fair opportunity for those previously convicted of cannabis to work in an industry that is otherwise thriving despite recent times.

To their credit, there have been a handful of states who’ve implemented social equity policies in their statewide cannabis industries to varying levels of success. The requirements differentiate a bit from state to state, but most states with social equity programs require at least two or three similar requirements. The most common requirement is that a social equity applicant must be a resident of their respective state and they must have resided in a zip code that would be considered a “Disproportionate Impacted Area” or a zip code that had been significantly more devastated by previous cannabis policies than other areas of their state. If the applicant themselves or even immediate family members were impacted by those draconian policies, then they may be considered. The details of the requirements, including precisely how many years one must have resided in a “Disproportionate Impacted Area”, fluctuate among the states with social equity programs, but the baseline requirements are mostly uniform.

Washington, technically the first state to legalize cannabis recreationally, may soon be implementing social equity policies of their own. As it currently stands, there’s a shockingly low amount of diversity among Washington cannabis license holders. 92 percent of the total license holders are white and only 4 percent of the retail cannabis licenses went to Black applicants. A blatant disparity, yet it’s a disparity that the Washington Legislature is actually attempting to solve.

Sponsored by 9 different representatives, Senate Bill 5080 would expand the currently lacking social equity program in Washington and among many provisions, the bill would allocate nearly 100 new retail cannabis licenses as well as 100 cultivation licenses. Also, the retail licenses would be considered mobile, therefore social equity applicant-owned businesses may be placed in any county that permits cannabis sales. As of writing, SB 5080 has passed in the Senate chamber of the Washington Legislature with a vote of 32-15 and will be heading over the House of Representatives.

Since 2020, Washington has been creating ways to include social equity measures in the state’s cannabis industry in small but noticeable increments. Last year, the Liquor and Cannabis Board of Washington approved a measure to re-issue 40 different cannabis licenses that were either revoked or unfulfilled entirely to social equity applicants. Although, many of those re-issued licenses were located in counties that have outlawed cannabis sales, so those licenses may have to wait until 5080 likely passes.

However with a total of well over 100 new licenses being issued to social equity applicants, there are concerns about the cannabis market quickly becoming oversaturated in a state with a population of less than 8 million and 30 percent of counties outlawing recreational cannabis sales entirely. In fact, by the end of the first year of recreational sales, city officials from 41 different cities throughout Washington have enacted their own local prohibition against recreational cannabis sales. Even in the very first American state to legal adult-use cannabis, prohibitionist attitudes still run rampant.

Although, there are others within the industry itself that are concerned with more licenses, “The 7.8 million Washingtonians can only consume so much cannabis and the market can only grow literally within the state borders,” said Adam Espino Jr, with the Craft Cannabis Coalition in testimony to the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Feb 13.

Social equity applications opened on March 1st and all the information regarding the application process can be found on the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board’s website.

Aaron Pelley

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