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Washington State Eases Cannabis Licensing Restrictions For Convicted Felons

Kudos to the Evergreen State for making an effort.

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This story originally appeared on Benzinga

Being a convicted felon will no longer prevent people from getting a license to sell cannabis in Washington, which was the nation's first state to legalize adult-use cannabis along with Colorado.

As it stands, most U.S. states require a criminal background check for applicants seeking a license to sell or grow cannabis; anyone with a felony or a few misdemeanor convictions is deemed ineligible. That changes next month in Washington, reported KOMO News.

“I think it's great what the state is doing in terms of allowing people who have issues in the past, to be able to qualify,” said Tran Du, co-owner of Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis in Seattle.

What this means

Under the new system, felonies will still be scrutinized but a jail or prison sentence will no longer be an automatic disqualifier.

“We wanted to bring parity in the disproportionality that we saw from the leftover of the war on drugs and that Black people were being arrested and brown people were being arrested disproportionately,” said Democratic State Rep. Melanie Morgan, chair of Washington state's Social Equity on Cannabis Task Force.

A study conducted by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project found that although African Americans and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than whites, African Americans were arrested for weed possession at 2.9 times the rate of whites. Latinos were arrested at 1.6 times the rate of whites.

By relaxing the criminal background restrictions, Morgan said the goal is to keep people of color from being locked out of the legal cannabis industry.

“The bottom line is bringing parity to the industry and making sure that Black and brown people have equal access to this industry in ownership,” Morgan said.

The new rule has already been adopted by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and takes effect Oct. 2.

Black-owned cannabis businesses still few and far between

While state and city leaders and cannabis advocates nationwide have embraced social equity programs with the goal of righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs and helping people of color get into the industry, their efforts haven't yet made the desired impact.

The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at the situation around the country and noted that low-income Blacks and Hispanics, as well as the formerly incarcerated, seem to face a fundamental problem: money, or lack thereof.

"Cannabis businesses are uniquely expensive and difficult to operate. They must navigate a thicket of state and federal regulations, from installing special ventilation systems to following certain security protocols. Compliance can require hiring experts. And because selling marijuana is illegal under federal law, it’s nearly impossible to get a business loan," wrote the think tank.

Not an easy lift

Pew's comprehensive report quoted Laura Herrera, a cannabis consultant who advises social equity entrepreneurs in Oakland, who said the application process in the city is akin to getting permission to build a housing development. And that’s just the beginning, she said.

“Nobody’s really prepared, except for big firms, for the bureaucracy and then the compliance requirements, and all the operational requirements,” Herrera said. “It’s a huge lift.”

Kudos to the state of Washington for making the effort.