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The Unheard Voices of the Cannabis Social Equity Movement

It's fallen to the legal cannabis industry to address the wrongs of the War on Drugs.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Social equity is a tricky beast to name -- it’s all new and a little crazy in an exciting way. Those familiar with the state initiatives know that they’re far from perfect, but most of what you hear about it focuses on the process, not the people.

Steve Russell | Getty Images

Since the launch of our SEED program in 2018, I’ve worked with ONE Cannabis to establish a social equity model that empowers applicants with the experience and capital necessary to realistically build out a profitable dispensary. I spend more time with these applicants than with my coworkers and lean on my background as both a rabbi and cannabis entrepreneur to bridge the cultural gap between the worlds of social equity and corporate partnership.

In an effort to find the best social equity applicants to partner with, we went through an exhaustive 100-person vetting measure in Los Angeles that consisted of multiple interviews, rigorous assessments and a few beers. Our goal was to create a flagship process others can utilize. This article is not about that process. Rather, it’s about a series of observations that are hard to miss in the social equity world -- but for some reason, aren’t being highlighted.

Related: Cannabis Social Equity Programs Are Imperfect but Critically Important

Many shapes, one direction

When we started the SEED program, we didn’t know anyone involved in that world personally. As we sought out community leaders, social equity advocates and applicants alike, it became clear that most media coverage glossed over key pieces of what motivates these people to believe that social equity -- and cannabis-- could be a pathway to a successful, independent ownership of a business.

It’s easy to read news articles and paint a simple picture of what social equity participants are like -- minorities with criminal records trying to make good for themselves and their communities. Easy to digest, admirable and in large part a misconception. 

People were affected by the War on Drugs in different ways -- not every social equity applicant has a record. We’ve run into people who have done years in jail for drug offenses, yes. But there are also women with master's degrees from prominent universities who spent their lives building careers for themselves. Many are involved in advocacy and community organizing in a serious way. They aren’t entering this blindly or without challenging the issues. Those jumping at an opportunity to start their own business shouldn’t be pigeonholed for being ambitious.

Related: Cannabis Legalization and the Quest for Social and Economic Justice

Predatory practices are very real.

ONE Cannabis is not the first company to offer its services to social equity applicants. Those who have been a part of the movement from the beginning are very aware of predatory corporations swooping in for a license and making out for themselves -- carpetbagging isn’t too dramatic of a term. Applicants swap stories of promising ventures that leave them with nothing, making the social equity community generally wary of corporations. 

As the observant reader might have guessed, that makes our job difficult. Our partners were rightfully slow to trust us. That puts them in an awkward position, though. The fundamental challenge of social equity programs is addressing the lack of funding and expertise -- but it hasn’t been a friendly experience in the past for private companies filling that gap. I’ve personally been called a sharecropper (among other choice words) for my attempts to work through these challenges.

It’s a question of trust that only applicants can answer -- applicants won’t succeed without some backing, and business partnerships are typically the best option. Other companies have come on board recently to provide the same resources as we do, reinforcing our message that not all companies seek to take from those who do not have. It’s our hope that the process will become easier as it’s normalized.

Related: Challenges and Controversy Swirl Around Marijuana Social Equity Programs in California

By communities, for communities.

Securing a free license which allows one to enter a profitable industry with no strings attached is far from selfless, but the financial incentive of applicants is far from selfish. Most social equity applicants we’ve spoken with see the opportunity as a way to carve out a better position for their kids, grandkids and whoever comes after that. Generational wealth is a huge motivator in the community, and more praiseworthy than most reasons. Others have dreams of giving hardworking friends a stable income that makes paying rent as painless as mailing a letter. It’s absolutely about the money, but that money is intended for things that make a huge impact in the lives of others.

Those involved look beyond themselves and their kids. They look at their neighborhoods and see what can be improved, and fight for what’s been taken away. It’s nearly impossible to separate social equity from the criminal injustice of the War on Drugs that originally launched the initiative. Applicants have not forgotten that the very notion of social equity came about as a reaction to decades of disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities. There are convicts still doing time for possession of a plant companies like mine profit from legally. The injustice is prevalent all over the U.S. and advocates from every corner are working to bring awareness to the subject.

Amidst all of this storming and forming, it’s strange to think that there isn’t really a bad guy holding the process back. Most everyone involved truly believes in the cause and is looking to contribute. The overarching goal is almost unanimously agreed upon, but the avenue to get there is highly disputed. Social equity is a growing phenomenon that will likely solve its own problems in time -- we are all just waiting for somebody to get it right. 

Getting social equity right will be a lot easier when enough people collectively realize how incredibly unique and important it is.