Apr 20, 2021 - News

Colorado pushes for social equity in the cannabis industry

Illustration of an equals sign made out of two marijuana joints.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

White business owners overwhelmingly dominate Colorado’s cannabis industry, but the market’s lack of diversity could soon change.

What’s happening: New efforts at the state and local level are moving forward to foster industry opportunities for communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

Driving the news: Tuesday — on 420 —Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is signing the most sweeping set of changes to the city’s marijuana regulation since recreational pot sales were legalized in 2014.

  • The trio of bills will allow weed bars and tour buses, legalize cannabis delivery and open applications for new retail and cultivation licenses for the first time since 2016.
  • The legislation gives preference, and in some cases exclusive access, to "social equity applicants," defined by the state as people who have been convicted of certain marijuana-related offenses prior to legalization, or people who live in low-income households or vulnerable communities.

The other side: Henny Lasley, the leader of SMART Colorado — a nonprofit advocating for children’s protection against the potential dangers of marijuana — said the group is "concerned" that upping the number of marijuana retail spots could lead to a spike in underage usage.

Yes, but: Equitable growth in the cannabis hospitality industry could be stunted by the 1,000-foot distance ("license buffers") that is required between each shop and schools, child care facilities, rec centers and more, experts say.

  • "There will essentially be 10.1 miles of available space. Whatever’s left is basically what the existing industry did not find to be valuable or viable," said Sarah Woodson, the founder of the Color of Cannabis, a nonprofit advocating for more diversity within the marijuana industry.

Of note: Significant action to equalize the cannabis playing field is also taking place at the state level:

  • Gov. Jared Polis last month dedicated $4 million to establish a social equity marijuana fund for business applicants who meet certain qualifications.
  • House Bill 1090 was also introduced this year and would expunge marijuana offenses for possession of 2 ounces or less.

Flashback: Last year, Polis pardoned nearly 3,000 convictions of low-level marijuana crimes in an executive order after signing a bill that gave him mass-pardon power.

Context: Three main factors have kept people of color out of the cannabis industry, experts say:

  • A lack of funding and capital.
  • The state’s failure to pardon cannabis crimes or expunge anyone’s record of them post-legalization.
  • And a legal requirement that banned people with a felony from entering Colorado’s industry for a full decade.

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