As cannabis policy reform continues to evolve at the state and federal level, social equity and social justice are two concepts that lawmakers and industry stakeholders must realize. For Roz McCarthy, founder and CEO of Minorites for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), these issues must be built in to the framework of legislation, but also addressed through educational programs that help equip minority-owned businesses with the knowledge and tools they need to succeed.
Founded in Florida in 2016, M4MM has 24 chapters throughout the U.S., as well as in Toronto and Jamaica. Here, McCarthy discusses the organization’s goals, its approach to social equity and social justice, and the group’s recent meeting with congressional representatives.
Cannabis Business Times: What are some of the organization’s overall goals?
Roz McCarthy: I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005, and I also have a son who has sickle cell anemia. I just felt compelled from a medical standpoint to make sure that people from minority communities [have] a really good understanding about this plant and [break] through some of the stigmas. We were always taught [that] this is bad, it’s not good for you, it’s addictive. So, this whole paradigm shift of how this plant could support a better quality of life for medical patients, that’s a story and that’s an education that is massive.
That was my first focus, and then after I started creating the mission and the goals of the organization and the vision, I added in social justice. I added in public policy. I really, truly believe that if you don’t create good public policy at the state and federal level, participation, diversity and inclusion sometimes can be really hard to facilitate if you don’t make sure that you put it in the framework of a bill. Then, we also focus on business development and workforce development. We really want to make sure that people of color are involved in the ecosystem of cannabis from a business perspective. It’s not just touching the plant, but it’s also the ancillary opportunities that have presented themselves.
CBT: What is the organization’s overall vision for social equity in the cannabis industry, and how can this be achieved?
RM: I look at social equity as a very holistic entity that needs to be addressed in a holistic way. It is not a Band-Aid where you say, “Hey, we’ve got a social equity program. Now you get a license, and you’re off and running.” I truly believe the intention is good, but when you look at social equity, it’s a multi-pronged and multi-tiered approach. Equity means, how do you balance the scale?
Of course [there’s] the business side, and then we talk about social justice in regard to expungement, [the] clearing of records. Not only the clearing of records, but how can we also provide wraparound services that support individuals who have been ostracized, who have still not received their new lease on life after having their records cleared? They need some help. They need some connectivity. And I think there’s an opportunity [there]. Yes, we can clear records, but how wonderful would it be if we could get them the ancillary social service pieces, as well, that will help them not only have a clear record, but have a better quality of life?
I truly believe another piece of social equity is that we look back at our communities that have been ravaged by the war on drugs and have been torn apart and are not where they should be. We still have youth that remain in those communities. We still have youth that have a misconception on medical marijuana and what that means. We have a responsibility from a social equity standpoint to educate our youth. We want to explain how this affects you as your brain is still growing, and how this can affect you as you’re excelling in school and as you prepare to go off to college, and how the use of cannabis can disrupt your whole life. That’s a responsibility we have, as well.
That’s why I say a holistic approach to social equity because it’s not just one silo, but several different opportunities that we have to rebalance the scale in our communities.
CBT: M4MM recently met with congressional representatives to offer insight on the importance of including social equity provisions in cannabis legalization measures. How did that event go, and what were some of the key takeaways?
RM: We had some really positive meetings. One of the best ones was with Rep. Earl Blumenauer. First and foremost, he took time out of his schedule to meet with us. He explained the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and the goals of that caucus. One of the things that we focus on as a goal is descheduling across the board in regard to the plant. Having a conversation about equity [was important], but also being able to explain why descheduling is important—it was a total comprehensive conversation that we had with Blumenauer.
He gave us recommendations on other colleagues that he felt were committed to not only descheduling, but also committed to wanting to understand, what does social equity look like? How can you frame it up within the framework of bills and amendments and the Constitution? Is it reparations? We call it “release and repair.” Release and repair is all about individuals who may be incarcerated or who were incarcerated. [It’s] expunging records if they are not incarcerated any longer, and, if they are incarcerated, based upon the level of the incarceration or the level of the marijuana offense, [it’s] being able to release them. And then how do we have funds? What about, for example, the DOJ having a fund of $100 million that would be able to support organizations [that are] repairing and allowing people to get a new lease on life? Those were some of the conversations that we had with him.
We spoke with David Joyce, who is a Republican who’s also on the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. His focus is the STATES Act. There are some minority organizations who don’t believe the STATES Act goes far enough, and I agree. But one thing I believe about this industry is we almost have an 80-year history of prohibition with this plant, and all of our goals and all of the things we want to change at a federal level and state level are not going to happen overnight. I look at the STATES Act as a pathway to help us get to where we need to be. The STATES Act would definitely help multi-state operators, these large companies. However, the STATES Act would also support minority-owned businesses who are right now preparing their applications to get into the industry. They have the same challenges. They need banking. They need [ cannabis] to be descheduled at the state levels so they have more room to maneuver. So, Congressman Joyce, that’s his focus. I realize it’s not going to meet all of our needs, but the first bill that comes in that gives us a little relief is not going to give us all the social equity that we should have and that we deserve. We have to focus on who’s going to direct the policy. We have to vote people in who are going to be sympathetic to the policy because it just doesn’t happen overnight.
I believe we have to work smarter and not harder. We have to be strategic. We have to be in front of these legislators, and we have to go to the ones who are not friendly to our position. We met with Sen. Marco Rubio’s office, who is not a supporter of adult use. He’s a supporter of a medical program. He’s a STATES Act supporter. But if we don’t have conversations with them to at least be able to say, “This is our point. This is why we believe this is important,” if we only go to the people who are sympathetic to what we’re talking about—that’s not how our government is built. It’s built on differing sides on a common ground and coming together to make that common ground work.
CBT: Are there any states that you think have included particularly robust social equity provisions in their cannabis legalization efforts?
RM: [Missouri’s Medical marijuana program] passed in November 2018. They’re currently promulgating rules and they’re getting the applications ready for individuals or entities to apply for business licenses. One thing about Missouri that I appreciate is they don’t have a social equity carveout. They wrote their bill so that it would service all of Missouri.
Missouri has eight congressional districts. They have 24 dispensary licenses that will be given out per congressional district in the state of Missouri. That means that there will be 192 [dispensary] licenses that go out in the first round. They also have noted that they’re going to give out 86 manufacturing and processing licenses. They’re also going to give out 61 cultivation licenses.
So, let’s take a city like St. Louis. St. Louis has a 56-percent African American population, and it sits in its own congressional district. So, even without saying, “Hey, let’s create a social equity program,” if you can prepare business owners who sit in that district who want to compete—we put on a boot camp. It started April 13 and it went for four weeks, where we had minority-owned businesses who attended our boot camp. It was six hours for four Saturdays in a row, and we went over everything from mitigating risks to understanding cultivation, extraction [and] dispensaries, a day in the life of these businesses: how to do your business plan, how to create your business partnerships, business formation 101, how to identify your real estate. What’s the role of the accountant and 280E? What are your ancillary business opportunities? We did this in a four-week time period so these individuals now can really compete.
And there are going to be provisions in [Missouri’s licensing] application that say, “What’s your diversity plan? How are you going to serve diverse communities?” On top of that, with 192 licenses the first round, you really create an opportunity where you don’t need to give me one [or] two [licenses]—you just need to know how to compete and put together a strong application and get your funding. We actually brought in investors the last class who pitched themselves to the attendees. These investors came in and said, “Hey, I’m looking to find a partner who wants to do x, y, and z.” They can say, “I’m an investor and I’m looking to invest in a dispensary operation,” and now we’re starting to matchmake these investors to these participants. It was a beautiful program.
Oaksterdam University is our educational partner. We also [partner with] Green Rush Consulting, which is a consulting firm out of Oakland that has over 10 years of experience writing applications for winning teams to get their license throughout the country. It was extremely well-received.
We have to, of course, ring the bell for social justice, but we also have to deliver solutions, and it has to be quantifiable solutions. In Missouri, when we created this boot camp, it’s a quantifiable solution that is measured—we have outcome data that we can track, and we can actually see how we are trying to make a difference and how impactful we are with the program we tried to put together. We have to find those solutions and that common ground.
CBT: What aspects of social equity or social justice should states looking to legalize be sure to include in cannabis legalization measures?
RM: I think a percentage of [ cannabis tax revenue] should go toward release and repair, and that’s a social justice issue. How can we review individuals who have convictions that are cannabis-related? How can there be a provision for release in the policy for a cannabis-related crime? How about having a percentage of the tax revenue that’s generated that goes back to also the repair? [Look] at job creation, job opportunity, putting some money [aside] and [establishing] some programming that’s very specific to individuals who were incarcerated for cannabis.
States that put in these provisions that say that you can’t have ownership [in a company] or you can’t even work in the cannabis industry if you have a cannabis-related felony—I think that should be dialed back extremely.
On [the] social equity [side], from a business standpoint, I think [we need] diversity [and] inclusivity overall. So, when you write a policy that says how people are going to be awarded a license, the policy should also focus on everyone having to show their capacity to create a diversity plan that’s going to support workforce development, diversity in suppliers and contracting, as well as ownership. No matter if you’re white or black, that should be something that’s in the law that says this has to be integrated into your plan to do business, [and] there will be a check and balance to make sure that what you put on paper, you’re actually doing.
I think policy is just really, really key. Larger, well-capitalized, well-funded lobbying groups [should] self-police and [say], “We’re going to make sure that you’re doing the right thing.” [Social equity] would happen so much quicker, to be honest with you. Anyone who’s touching the cannabis space, I think we have a responsibility to say, “OK, what can we do to structure good policy that’s not going to be challenged in court?” That’s another issue. Sometimes social equity that you put in [policy] is used as a carveout, and if that carveout is directly in conflict with the state’s constitution, then you end up having litigation that ends up basically preventing anyone from going after a license that would be considered an equity applicant. So, we have to try to figure out that sweet spot where you write policy that’s going to support an equity applicant and that’s also going to stand the test of time with litigation.
Then, the other thing is, how do we define a social equity applicant? Is it someone who’s been incarcerated? I have family that’s been incarcerated, so does that make me a social equity applicant? I’ve never been incarcerated. We really need to look at, what does that mean? When it comes to contracting, establishing a business [and] having a profitable business, African American businesses have always had challenges and struggles. So, again, how do you define social equity? Is it something that is specific to African American businesses? Is it specific to just a specific group of people? And I think that’s something we need to think about.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.