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What Does the Latest Pot Legalization Wave Means for Jobs and Social Equality?

Beyond the political impact, many are curious if the recent legalization boom will help ensure that the cannabis industry dedicates itself to being a real equal opportunity employer.

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More than a month has passed since the 2018 midterm elections. However, many cannabis advocates remember November 7th as it were yesterday, as we woke up to news of Michigan legalizing recreational cannabis — a first for the Midwest — and Utah and Missouri passing ballot measures to allow their residents to use medical cannabis.

As the day went by, we also saw Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of the sweet leaf, resign as per President Donald Trump’s request, and Pete Sessions (no relation) — who’d also blocked numerous cannabis-related votes as Chairman of the House Rules Committee — lose a re-election vote for Texas’s 32nd Congressional District. This made November 7th a “holy shit” kind of day in the world of weed.

“Every time there is another successful cannabis initiative at the state level, that only adds further pressure on Congress to take action at the federal level,” John Vardaman, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at payment and banking technology company Hypur, told MERRY JANE.

“These ballot measures come at an interesting point where the national sentiment seems to be that ordinary people can't make the government do what we want, but somehow we've managed to collectively drive the conversation about marijuana towards legalization,” added Sarah Sicard, an editor at The Bluntness. “I think this shows we have a great deal of power in deciding what we value as a society.”

But, beyond the political impact, many are curious what the recent legalization wave could mean for jobs and racial equality in the industry — especially now that recreational sales have commenced in Massachusetts, New Jersey seems closer than ever to adult use legalization, and Utah’s legislature passed a “compromise” medical marijuana bill.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Karson Humiston, CEO of Vangst, often considered the cannabis industry’s largest staffing agency, believes recreational legalization in Michigan and medical legalization in Missouri and Utah will lead to a surge of pot jobs in all three states.

According to Humiston, Colorado has created over 30,000 new full-time jobs since legalizing cannabis in 2012 — and this number is still on the rise. “We can expect the same to happen in Michigan,” she said.

By means of comparison, we can look into “The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, Sixth Edition,” a report published by Arcview Market Research in partnership with BDS Analytics. As per their estimates, Michigan’s legal cannabis spending will surpass $1.3 billion by 2022, employing almost 28,000 people.

When we asked BDS and ArcView why their employment numbers were lower than Vangst’s, the team pointed us to their latest report, which states that their figures seeked to “avoid overstating the positive effects of cannabis legalization to encourage legislators and regulators to liberalize existing laws.” The reports adds, however, that “the results represented here present a compelling picture of benefits to states that legalize cannabis.”

What about Missouri and Utah?

“Based on the expected number of licenses in Missouri and Utah, we can expect at least 10,000 jobs to be created in each state over the next four years,” Humiston of Vangst said.

Racial Equality

While the job creation estimates are certainly impressive, MERRY JANE was curious about how this affects minorities, who’ve paid the highest price for prohibition. How will the people who’ve been the most oppressed by the War on Drugs be integrated into the legal industry? 

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For the time being, it seems like they aren’t. Some research has stated that only 4.3 percent of cannabis businesses in the U.S. are owned by African Americans, and just 5.7 percent are owned by Latinx people — even though they represent about 14 percent and almost 18 percent of the total population, respectively.

Further confirming this trend, a survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily revealed that minorities hold 17 percent of executive positions at cannabis businesses, even though they account for almost 40 percent of the American population.

“I believe as more states become legalized we will continued to see a rise of interest from the black and Latinx communities wanting to enter this industry,” said Gia Morón, Executive Vice President at women-focused cannabis industry networking organization Women Grow. “Unfortunately we are still seeing the recurring pattern of lack of access to capital, job opportunities, or training. Ownership numbers will continue to remain low if black and Latinx people are not receiving the same financial backing as many our counterparts in this industry.”

Morón continued: “It is no secret that the playing field was unleveled from the start. The fact that people are working with governments to ensure these mandates are in place for minorities and minority owned businesses is a clear indication. That said, I do understand that in order to see the change, we must work towards creating ones we want to see, which is why I commend and respect the social equity work people in these states are [focusing on]. It is imperative we create solutions to address these challenges my communities are facing. A shift is happening in the industry.”

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But equality is not just about ownership. It’s also about employment. So, how can we ensure the cannabis industry remains a real equal opportunity employer?

Well, change doesn’t happen on its own, as Morón mentioned. Inclusion relies heavily on the advancement of social equity programs, such as what’s being pushed in California, Maryland, and Massachusetts, as well as the emergence of social equity incubators like The Hood Incubator or Growing Talent, and other educational, training, and internship programs like those offered by the National Diversity & Inclusion Cannabis Alliance.

Social Equity on the Rise

Some state and local governments have sought to offer incentives and mandates that would help “enable new opportunities, specifically for minority-owned cannabis businesses, or businesses that look to ensure that people of color are properly represented within their staffs,” said Jeff Siegel, a well-known cannabis stock analyst and socially-responsible investor who’s been championing progressive causes for years. 

“Lawmakers embracing legislation that would ensure cannabis businesses can legally operate in minority communities also offer an assurance that these communities are not left out of what will prove to be one of the greatest job growth opportunities of the 21st century.”

One such state is Massachusetts, which recently rolled out an equity program that stipulates prioritizing license applications from people most impacted by the War on Drugs, as well as from companies that commit to helping disadvantaged sectors of the society. The initiative also seeks to hand out smaller-scale, more accessible licenses for micro businesses and craft marijuana cooperatives formed by small farmers who seek to pool their resources.

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California is also trying to embrace social equity. As Randy Robinson explained in a recent MERRY JANE article, “social equity programs may do more for licensees beyond granting business permits. City offices [in several California towns] can assist licensees with obtaining loans, finding start-up capital, or securing business space under incubators — business owners who may participate in the program if they pay the rent for an equity recipient.”

For instance, the Social Equity Program in Los Angeles “will enable a 2-to-1 ratio of ownership and equity on retail shops to those who qualify under the SEP requirements — i.e. being low-income, having a previous cannabis conviction, and having resided in a qualifying zip code. In LA, the challenges may outweigh the benefits for SEP applicants if certain requirements to qualify for a temporary license in Phase 3 are not changed or excluded,” said Bonita Money, founder of the National Diversity Inclusion & Cannabis Alliance.

Commenting on these programs, Siegel added: “Certainly legislation can play a role in establishing regulatory frameworks that guarantee people of color are not excluded from the incredible economic opportunities that will continue to spawn from the rapid development of this industry. But to embrace real social justice within this industry, the industry itself must be proactive. While government can provide regulatory frameworks, it is the cannabis industry that must operate in a socially responsible manner.”

One company that has been committed to racial equality is Simply Pure, whose CEO is Wanda James, the first African-American woman to own a dispensary in Colorado.

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James believes her role in the industry is simple: “I help open doors,” she told MERRY JANE. “Diversity inspires more diversity. It is not about being a woman or being black that makes change happen. It is because I am black and a woman that I focus on making change happen.”

James continued: “We think about the optics of our company, and we intentionally and purposefully reach out to minority communities and women-owned firms for employees and contracts. It is a core value of who we are.”

A New Leaf

Adam Vine of Cage Free Cannabis is one of the organizers of National Expungement Week (or NEW for short), a series of organized events that took place across the U.S. in October. NEW offers expungement assistance and other forms of legal relief to people with cannabis convictions.

“The 298 people who began the process of cleaning their criminal records during National Expungement Week will see increased access to jobs, including jobs in the cannabis industry,” said Vine. “The bulk of $3 million in public benefit created by National Expungement Week consists of increased wages available to expungement applicants. Many states, such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, continue to prohibit people with certain drug convictions from working in the cannabis industry. With these expungements, the benefits of the ‘green rush’ should soon begin flowing to people who have previously been incarcerated.”

By means of conclusion, Bonita Money voiced: “Corruption and greed is most prevalent when it should be a time of creating opportunity and generational wealth for the people and communities that have suffered from the failed War on Drugs.” We couldn’t agree more. 

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Follow Javier Hasse on Twitter

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