As New York inches closer to legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis, the state finds itself in a unique position. Not only does it have an opportunity to learn from states with robust legal cannabis markets but it can galvanize other states to help launch social equity programs.
During a recent panel discussion sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Cannabis Law, experts talked at length about the topic of social equity in cannabis. They commended the social equity programs that are blooming in states and cities across the country and discussed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, the bill under consideration by the New York Legislature.
What is Social Equity?
According to the Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance of the National Academy of Public Administration, social equity is defined as; “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract, and the fair and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy, and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy.”
Companies and governments in states where cannabis is legalized have already begun to start social equity programs with the intent to promote fairness, justice and equity. Often these programs center on five issues; criminal justice reform, business ownership and support, health equity, community reinvestment and prison-reentry initiatives.
According to Dasheeda Dawson, the cannabis program supervisor in Portland, Oregon, the common definition of social equity is just one part of a larger total equity solution.
“There are often elements that get missed when we talk about social equity through this narrow lens,” Dawson said. “When you look at it from a wider lens, social equity is just one part of a four-part total equity solution, with the other three being economic equity, health equity and environmental equity. But by narrowing the focus on social equity we miss out on the fact that cannabis can impact all four parts.”
Criminal Justice Reform
In states that have legalized cannabis, righting the wrongs of the ‘War on Drugs,’ including expungement of previous marijuana convictions, is an imperative, according to Richard Huang, an attorney who helped Massachusetts during its legalization effort.
“First and foremost, cannabis legislation grounded on a moral vision of remedying the damage done by the ‘War on Drugs,’ Huang said. “The development of a market through legislation that is grounded on some vision of social equity that differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but it is the fundamental driving force behind these pieces of legislation.”
In New York, legislators separated criminal justice reform from cannabis legalization, which resulted in sweeping decriminalization laws signed in 2019 and an expungement of previous convictions bill signed in 2020.
Chris Alexander, government relations and policy manager at Viola and former associate counsel in the New York State Senate, saw the roadblocks first-hand that get created when social equity and legalization are coupled together.
“For a long-time in New York, the creation of a regulated cannabis market was tied to social equity programs,” Alexander said. “By pushing ahead in 2019 with an expansive decriminalization statute and creating expungement, which didn’t exist previously, lawmakers were able to focus on creating the market New Yorkers want to see.”
What’s in the Legalization Bill?
The MRTA, if passed by the New York State Senate and signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, will remove harsh criminal penalties and will end the controversial statute that allows police to ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ based on the odor of marijuana.
Additionally, the bill will direct investment of revenue back into communities hardest hit by the war on drugs and will create a robust social equity provision, including the creation of a chief equity officer.
The bill will also allow licenses for on-site consumption, make improvements for medical marijuana patients and allow for safe home cultivation, a program that will be modeled after New York’s wildly successful beer, wine and cider homebrew law, which passed in 2013.
Most notably, the MRTA will fully clear prior criminal records and provide protections against employment, housing, education and immigration consequences for individuals who have previous marijuana convictions.