Many Americans of late middle age and older remember the years when pot smokers passed “nickel” bags of marijuana leaves, stems and seeds quietly from hand to hand and lots of people went to prison for using or selling the stuff.
Now, 36 U.S. states allow the sale of medical marijuana and 18 more state allow sales of recreational cannabis, often in super-sleek stores with high-tech ingestion technologies for sophisticated cannabis products.
Lingering under the surface of this mega-profitable picture is the damage to the mostly black and brown neighborhoods where the war on drugs landed like an anvil over the decades, leading to excessive imprisonment and all the corollary damage that creates. In fact, the Last Prison Project asserts that there are “over 40,000 cannabis prisoners … today in the United States alone, while countless others languish in jails and prisons worldwide.”
Some governments that write cannabis business rules, including granting business licenses, are taking a stab at restorative justice by requiring or encouraging cannabis businesses to help right some wrongs of the past. Massachusetts and its Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) are among them.
State law requires the CCC to “provide meaningful participation of communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition and enforcement, including minority business enterprises, women business enterprises, and veteran business enterprises.” In fact, the Commission’s website names the 29 official “communities of disproportionate impact.”
How are Massachusetts and its cannabis commission trying to heal some of the injustices of drug enforcement overreach in poorer and minority communities? First, all applicants seeking cannabis business licenses must submit “positive impact plans” and “diversity plans” describing how they will promote the state’s standards for equity in the industry. Guidelines for positive impact plans start with defining people disproportionately harmed by cannabis laws: people who live in the communities mentioned above; people or the children and spouses of people with past drug convictions; and others deemed worthy of restorative justice.
Elements of a positive impact plan could include offering grants or low-interest loans; creating business accelerator or incubator programs; providing business education opportunities or help with sealing or expunging criminal records; creating jobs in the cannabis industry; funding charitable efforts.
Diversity plans pertain mainly to creating equity in the workforce for people of color, Latinos, Indigenous people; women. Veterans, people with disabilities, LGBT people.
Separately, the CCC created social equity and economic empowerment priority programs, both aimed at serving individual Massachusetts residents heavily affected by drug law enforcement, including past arrests and other factors. People who qualify under these headings may qualify for free technical assistance and training, fast-tracked license application review, waiver of application fees, access to social consumption and delivery-only licenses, and a 50 percent reduction of annual license fees.
According to a spokeswoman from the CCC, as of mid-September 2021, 1,023 licensing applications had been approved by the commission.