May 4, 2023 - News

Washington will add more pot shops as part of social equity push

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Washington state is set to get more licensed cannabis businesses — and, under a new law, they'll be run by people who were likely to have been most impacted by previous drug enforcement.

Driving the news: Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure into law Monday that will allow 52 more retail cannabis shops to open in Washington between 2024 and 2032.

  • That's almost a 10% increase over the current number of licensed pot shops, which has been capped at 556 statewide since 2016.
  • The new law will also add 10 new licenses for businesses that grow cannabis and 100 new licenses for pot-processing businesses. Those types of licenses haven't been made available to new applicants since 2013.

Why it matters: The idea is to help people who have been underrepresented in the state's legal cannabis industry — including Black and Hispanic business owners — gain a foothold, more than 10 years after Washington voters approved the legalization of pot.

Details: The new licenses will only be available to businesses majority-owned by people who meet certain social equity criteria, such as having lived at least five years in an area with high poverty and high unemployment, or having been previously arrested or convicted of a cannabis offense.

  • Those metrics are aimed at awarding the licenses to people whose communities were especially affected by decades of criminalizing drug use, according to the law's text.

Between the lines: The new law should help diversify the state's pot industry, which is disproportionately white, state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), the bill's sponsor, said in a news release Tuesday.

  • "Building pathways of opportunity and flexibility for people of color disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs is not only a moral imperative, but a crucial step towards a more just and equitable society," Saldaña said.

Of note: A 2012 analysis found that before cannabis was legalized, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people in Washington were arrested for possessing the drug at higher rates than white residents.

What's next: The state Liquor and Cannabis Board will develop additional rules for awarding the social equity licenses, including deciding how soon to make the 52 new pot retail licenses available.


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