Photo courtesy of Shaleen Title

With Massachusetts' adult-use cannabis regulations freshly in effect, and legal sales expected to start in a matter of weeks, the state must now grapple with how to ensure that legal pot benefits its population as a whole, and not just already well-to-do residents. Social equity programs are on the rise throughout states with legal marijuana, aiming to help individuals and entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities of color — widely victimized by the War on Drugs — find opportunities for professional success in the cannabis industry.  

In Massachusetts, Shaleen Title, member of the state Cannabis Control Commission, is leading the effort to ensure social justice in the state's legal marijuana program. Prior to her position as a regulator, Title co-founded THC Staffing Group, a recruiting firm that focuses on equality and inclusion in the cannabis industry. She also worked as an attorney, using her specialty in cannabis regulation to consult on state and local cannabis policy around the country, as well as to provide expertise for major legal marijuana consultants like Vicente Sederberg and 4Front Advisors. Title also co-authored Massachusetts' cannabis legalization referendum Question 4, which was passed by voters in 2016, and in 2012, she even served as a senior staffer for Colorado's Amendment 64 — the first successful initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in the country.

With a longtime focus on social equity in cannabis, Title, who also served as a founding board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, was instrumental in drafting the MCBA Model Bill — the first example of state-level legislation to provide guidelines on how to implement reinvestment and reconciliation processes through marijuana reform. Among Title's long list of accomplishments, she has also served as a trustee for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and as a board member for Marijuana Majority, the Family Law and Cannabis Alliance, and the National Lawyers Guild. Remarkably, she’s also the only current cannabis commissioner to actually vote for legal marijuana in Massachusetts.

To ensure that Massachusetts' adult-use cannabis program can benefit everyone equally, it aims to aid entrepreneurs from areas most affected by marijuana prohibition on two fronts: first, by granting priority consideration to applicants from high-enforcement neighborhoods for cannabis licenses under its Economic Empowerment Priority Review initiative; and second, by offering professional and technical services — such as business mentoring, employee training, and fundraising advice — for qualified applicants in order to promote "sustainable, socially, and economically reparative practices" in the Bay State’s commercial cannabis industry through its Social Equity program.

In a recent seminar given by Commissioner Title about social equity and sustainable communities, she explained additional aspects of Massachusetts' regulations, written to ensure the cannabis program is fair and inclusive.

Beyond the Priority Review and Social Equity programs, the state’s regulations include something of an "extra credit" initiative for non-equity applicants that want to go above and beyond to help their more disadvantaged peers: Massachusetts cannabis companies that donate one percent of their revenue toward a technical assistance fund to support the equity program can display a state-approved “social justice seal” on their packaging, which could serve as a powerful signal to consumers who want to support and share those values.

Meanwhile, to encourage innovation and creativity among company leaders, companies are required to submit an equity plan to show how they will promote racial and gender diversity and include people from all backgrounds. They also must present in that plan how their business will positively affect communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. Some companies have already set up incubation clinics, career fairs, skills training, and other offerings.

And to ensure that businesses of all sizes can succeed in the program, Massachusetts offers microbusiness licenses for cultivators under 5,000 square feet, also allowing them to manufacture value-added products under that same license, and to get a 50 percent discount on licensing fees. The commission also created a “craft marijuana cooperative” license for small and artisanal farmers to pool their resources, and moreover, equity applicants, microbusinesses, and co-ops are all exempted from the monthly service fee on required seed-to-sale tracking systems.

A great deal of the foundation for Massachusetts' social equity plan was informed by research from Northeastern University's School of Law, which partnered with THC Staffing Group. “The concept of using marijuana reform as a vehicle for restorative justice is not new,” says Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and sciences at Northeastern. "But what Massachusetts is trying to do is relatively unique. This is because the commission has been deliberate in foregrounding restorative justice, public health, and social justice goals as part and parcel of how the industry will be structured.”

To learn more about Massachusetts' social equity program and Title's role in it, MERRY JANE caught up with the commissioner by email to learn more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MERRY JANE: What led you to become one of Massachusetts’ cannabis commissioners?

Shaleen Title: I was appointed by the Governor, Treasurer, and Attorney General to the seat, which was required to be filled by someone with expertise in policy and social justice.

What kind of social equity goals does Massachusetts’ cannabis program aim to achieve, both in the short term and in the future?

The program is designed to create and build pathways into the marijuana industry, and redress historic harm done to individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by imbalanced rates of arrest and incarceration for cannabis (and other drug crimes) as a result of state and federal drug policy. The program’s overall mission is to decrease the disparities in life outcomes for impacted individuals and communities, and improve the quality of life in areas of disproportionate impact. You can see our equity guidance here. My hope for the future is that our programs will develop a pipeline for people from communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests to gain opportunities within the industry.

What resistance or challenges have you encountered in developing the social equity guidelines?

I have not encountered much resistance to the idea in theory; the trickier part is implementing the program in a way that encourages the participants to truly be successful. That takes more work than just a training program or a diversity plan – it requires fairness and accessibility to be baked into every decision we make. I think the full commission has been mindful of this throughout the implementation process.

What are some specific opportunities the social equity program will provide to disadvantaged groups?

One opportunity would be technical assistance that varies based on level of expertise and ultimate goals, as well as fee waivers and connections to potential partners, employees, and employers.

What problems have you observed in other cannabis-legal states around social justice?

Evidence shows that communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition have largely been left out of the legal marijuana industry in other states.

What do you think of the social equity regulations as they stand now? Are they as you wished them to be, or did anything you wanted to be included get left out?

I am pleased with the Massachusetts regulations and very proud of them — they are the product of an open and transparent dialogue between the public and commissioners/staff with diverse experiences. I am looking forward to our dialogue later this year about the regulation of social consumption and delivery, because our commission voted to give exclusive access to those licenses to equity applicants, co-ops, and microbusinesses, initially. But we did not make any further decisions about those licenses.

What are your general thoughts around Massachusetts' impending launch of adult-use cannabis sales? Is it going as expected?

If I could go back in time, I would have spent more time encouraging city and town officials and residents to think in advance about how they wanted legal marijuana to look locally, and how they might thoughtfully institute their own values into the regulation of such businesses.

What advice do you have for activists and readers on the most effective ways to push for both legal cannabis and social equity at the same time?

I just did a webinar on this topic — here's the link. In short, organize with others on a similar page, figure out what you want, and ask for it concisely and consistently.

Do you have any statistics on how many people have benefited from social equity program so far, and how many more could potentially benefit?

At this time, no licenses have been issued. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the Commission issuing its first canna-business license.] However, our equity program will launch this summer, and we are required to measure the meaningful participation of different communities in the legal industry. So we will absolutely have that data as time goes on.

For more information about the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission and its social equity programs, check out their website. And if you're interested in providing technical assistance to Massachusetts' equity program participants, the deadline for applications is July 25th, 5pm EDT.