WSLCB - Engagement - BIPOC
(October 5, 2020)

Monday October 5, 2020 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM Observed

Board members and staff of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) participate in external engagements in their official capacities.

Prompted by the passage of HB 2870 in the spring of 2020, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) committed to scheduling a series of engagements with "communities of color." Cannabis Observer opted to use the terminology "black, indigenous, and people of color" (BIPOC) rather than "communities of color" in recognition of the likelihood that perceptions about the WSLCB may not be shared within racial and/or ethnic groups, and the so-called war on drugs disproportionately impacted African American communities in Washington and across the United States.

Engagement Options

Observations

In the second BIPOC engagement, WSLCB leadership spoke before allowing more time for 19 participants to voice deeply held frustrations and offer suggestions for ways forward.

  • Agency Director Rick Garza provided perspective on his family background, revealing more about his personal history than Cannabis Observer has previously heard (audio - 6m).
  • In response to concerns raised about WSLCB Enforcement overstepping the limits of its authority, Enforcement Chief Justin Nordhorn provided his perspective on the agency’s law enforcement powers (audio - 6m).
  • Access complete segmented audio from the three hour engagement below, and reference the first BIPOC engagement hosted on September 29th which included many of the same participants.

WSLCB leadership listened during more than two hours of community feedback, provided some feedback of their own, and shared new details about the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force.

Here are some observations from the Monday October 5th Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) engagement with black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • Several WSLCB officials shared their perspectives on cannabis social equity prior to public comment.
    • The event was the second of three scheduled BIPOC Engagements intended to gather input around social equity in the cannabis industry as well as the WSLCB’s own diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices. The first event was hosted on September 29th.
    • Prompted by the passage of HB 2870 which was signed into law on March 31st, WSLCB committed to scheduling a series of engagements with "communities of color." The agency coordinated with the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs (CAAA) and contracted Caprice Hollins of Cultures Connecting to assist in facilitating the events, originally envisioned as in-person gatherings.
    • WSLCB leadership present for the virtual event included:
      • Board Member Ollie Garrett
      • Director Rick Garza
      • Deputy Director Megan Duffy
      • Enforcement Chief Justin Nordhorn
      • Director of Licensing Becky Smith
      • Director of Communications Brian Smith
      • Director of Legislative Relations Chris Thompson
    • The agency’s BIPOC engagements were separate from, though complementary to, the Washington State Legislative Task Force on Social Equity in Marijuana. WSLCB was expected to support the task force’s work, which would include definition of application criteria for 34 available retail licenses.
    • On October 7th, the Task Force’s page on the Washington State Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities website was edited to rename the group the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force. A Note About Language was appended to explain:
      • “Statute refers to this Task Force as the Social Equity in Marijuana Task Force. The Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities is committed to using language that respects and honors the communities that this Task Force is created to serve. We have heard from community members that the word marijuana is racist, derogatory, and inflammatory. Historically, the word marijuana was used by American prohibitionists, along with the false perception that crime was linked to people of color, to exploit racism and xenophobia (Amy Loriaux, Marijuana and Racism: A History). Therefore, while referring to this Task Force and the social equity work that it has been charged with, the Council will use the term cannabis.” 
    • Garrett offered an introduction similar to her remarks during the September 29th session (audio - 8m).
    • Garza began with remarks echoing his earlier views of the agency’s DEI history as it related to the developing cannabis industry. He then responded to comments raised during the first BIPOC engagement and shared more about his own background (audio - 6m).
      • Addressing concerns he heard about WSLCB lacking the “diversity to properly address the issues before us,” Garza noted that the participant making the claim “knows we have a diverse workplace. Two of our three board members are women, one is African American. The Director, me, I’m Mexican American...Our Human Resources Director [Claris Nnanabu] is African American, which is a key leader in our agency to ensure we have a diverse workplace. Becky Smith, our Licensing Director who you’ll hear from today, is Mexican American.” Garza said WSLCB maintained a “diversity council...that’s been in existence for over 10 years.”
      • Garza then opened up about his own upbringing in a Mexican American household in Yakima Valley. “My parents were the children of farmworkers who worked in the fields. Our family worked in the fields,” he explained, noting his family followed employment opportunities (“moved with the crops”) over many years from southern Texas up the west coast into Washington.
      • Garza’s ancestors “put roots in Grandview in 1948. In our community, they were known leaders in the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s. My mother was the first hispanic woman elected to the Grandview City Council, where she served until she passed away. My father was also a community leader. Both were known for their passionate work for justice.” His mother had worked at the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) “creating economic opportunities for communities of color” with the late Henry Beauchamp, Jr., a former mayor of Yakima and prominent leader of that region’s African American community.
      • Having lived in Olympia since 1983, Garza argued that after 35 years in state government, public service was “in our family.” His sister, Lisa van der Lugt, was currently the director of the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises (OMWBE) and a former director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs (CHA).
      • Garza shared his family’s civic contributions “so you know where I come from. That social justice is just not a professional goal, but it's a personal one for me.” He considered HB 2870 to be the “beginning of trying to repair the damage of those that were left out of this new industry.”
      • Later on, Garza returned to offer some comments and responses to some participants, saying I-502 was not drafted by WSLCB and that the agency was but “one player in the amendments and changes that occurred over time” often reacting to the decisions of state lawmakers (audio - 7m).
        • Vertical integration---where a single entity produces, processes, and dispenses cannabis---had been possible under the former medical dispensary system, he explained, but the initiative was written “to not allow vertical integration. That’s why a lot of folks...wanted nothing to do with this new law.” 
        • Garza said that HB 2870 added “a social equity lens” that didn’t exist in the early state ballot measures ending cannabis prohibition. The law was “just a start” in addressing equity needs for the market. HB 2870 was passed with a partisan vote, and Garza claimed many of the law’s proponents knew “it wasn’t enough, that 34 licenses isn’t enough. But we have to start somewhere.
        • While indicating that many were shut out of acquiring new retail licenses created when the legislature merged the medical dispensary and recreational markets by way of SB 5052 in 2015, Garza said that there’d been “an influence by the [502] industry to not allow all these dispensaries in. There were also cities and counties out there that came to the table and said ‘we don’t want all these dispensaries to be licensed’...I’m just telling you, thousands of people who had dispensaries were left out. There was no way they were going to get a license...I’m not judging it, I’m just sharing with you the experience [WSLCB] had.” He called I-502 “not fair” and blamed it for destroying “the medical program and marketplace that was out there to replace it with an adult program.”
          • Garza did not mention that he supported SB 5052 on behalf of WSLCB, according to the legislation’s final senate bill report. I-502 didn’t address medical dispensary policies, whereas SB 5052 directly led to the closing of dispensaries which Garza criticized.
        • Garza told participants “and those who lost their dispensaries” he could “recognize your frustration” and that part of the reason for the engagements was hearing “your ideas of how we move forward today, not just when the social equity bill and the task force brings their recommendations.”
    • Thompson walked through a presentation developed for the event that covered HB 2870 and WSLCB’s role in the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force. He reviewed the law’s history from its beginning as WSLCB agency request legislation (audio - 14m).
      • Thompson said the program authorized by the law encompassed the distribution of “a certain number of retail licenses” - and noted that the available number had risen to 35 from 34 retail licenses. The agency could only issue “licenses that had previously been forfeited, cancelled, or revoked. Or hadn’t been introduced in the first place.” Licensing beyond that “would have to be authorized by a new law,” he added.
      • He next addressed statutory qualifications for social equity applicants:
        • “Resided for at least five of the preceding ten years in a ‘disproportionately impacted area,’” 
        • “OR, Has been convicted of a marijuana offense or is a family member of such an individual.”
      • Thompson went over the technical assistance grants, which had been “funded at the level of $1.1 million annually, and it will be administered, not by our agency, but by the Washington State Department of Commerce.” Grants would be awarded on a “competitive basis” due to an assumption that there would be “more requests for these funds” than was budgeted.
      • Turning to the legislatively mandated task force, Thompson said the body would “help guide our agency in setting up the specifics for the new program that aren’t already spelled out in law.” Beyond that, the task force would “advise the Governor and the Legislature in the future on potential program expansion or other ways in which they’d like to see the program develop in the future.”
        • Thompson noted that the difficulties created by COVID-19 “had unfortunately delayed some of the work that’s necessary to implement” the program. On June 12th, the Office of the Governor notified the members of the Washington State Senate Labor and Commerce Committee (WA Senate LBRC) and the House Commerce and Gaming Committee (WA House COG) that the Executive branch would not meet HB 2870’s deadlines for an initial meeting by July 1st nor the December deadline for the group’s first report to the legislature.
        • Thompson reviewed the Task Force membership, commenting that one of the legislative members would be chosen as the task force chair.
          • On October 7th, it was publicized that Senator Curtis King, ranking member of WA Senate LBRC, was appointed to represent the Senate Republican Caucus on the Task Force. Thompson previously indicated that receipt of a recommendation from Senate Republicans for the appointment of the final seat on the Task Force had become a barrier to progress. During the final passage of HB 2870 in the Senate, King led opposition to the bill.
          • The Department of Commerce and the CHA have also changed their appointees to Christopher Poulos, and Carmen Rivera, respectively.
        • Thompson said that staffing for the Task Force would be provided by the Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities which was in turn staffed by Washington State Board of Health (SBOH) Health Policy Advisor Christy Curwick Hoff. “Folks didn’t want the LCB to fill that role, and we certainly understood that, we totally supported that,” Thompson indicated before adding that staffing would be taken over by the State’s new Office of Equity “when they are ready.” He noted that Garrett was WSLCB’s only voice on the task force and the agency will “be looking to the group as a whole...to chart the next steps and the details ahead.”
      • Thompson credited CAAA Commissioner Paula Sardinas as “a great partner [on HB 2870] and very instrumental in every way, including getting the funding level in the grant program significantly boosted.” He said the Task Force would play “a crucial role” in the equity program’s development and that it was important that it was “done independent of” WSLCB.
      • Thompson relayed his understanding that the group’s first meeting would convene “probably late October or early November.” He urged those interested in the policy to “keep this task force in mind” and join in the group’s public meetings. He closed out his comments by recommending people follow WSLCB’s own social equity webpage and sign up to receive updates from the social equity task force.
    • Director of Licensing Becky Smith reviewed the licensing process in addition to active and inactive cannabis licenses, a repeat of her briefing from the first session (audio - 8m).
  • The public weighed in for over two hours, including concerned citizens and individuals who had alleged racial bias during the agency’s earlier cannabis licensing periods.
    • Darlene Conley, licensed producer; Social And Economic Equity And Diversity (Seeds) For African Americans In The Legal Cannabis Industry (audio - 5m)
      • Conley began by saying “things have gotten a lot better” during her second attempt to obtain a production license “because...we went to court and we got support from the African American Commission, and then also some politicians, and now we’re getting walked through the process.” She hoped applicant support could expand, particularly around “predatory landlords.” She noted there were “only a few places where marijuana grows can be established and landlord and building owners know that.” “Dilapidated” property owners were using licensees, “getting their buildings brought up to code and then they can evict you or” raise rents. Conley suggested this kind of predation disproportionately targeted minority license holders.
      • Conley also found WSLCB’s deadlines “so unrealistic that you end up signing these lease, that are not advantageous at all” as landlords know the agency limited the timeframe to relocate licensed premises.
      • Another hurdle was applicants of color were often “afraid to talk to the LCB.” Conley’s desire to change locations resulted in a court case as she was “misconstrued that we wanted to completely get out of the business...it was very time consuming and very expensive.” Conley believed some problems went unaddressed as “policies were not clearly written.”
      • Lately, Conley said she’d encountered a “kinder, gentler LCB” after establishing a better relationship with her business’s Enforcement officer and “not feeling that they’re just out to get me.”
      • Her final recommendation was that “it’s going to be very easy for some people, non-minorities, to scam the system” and called for WSLCB to ensure “safeguards against that.” She also hoped some of the technical assistance grants would “use minority contractors so it's just not just the money going to non-minority firms.”
    • Sami Saad, former dispensary owner (audio - 13m, audio - 11m, audio - 6m)
      • Saad had been a vocal critic of the WSLCB and the regulated marketplace, first speaking at the February 22nd Cannabis Equity in Our Community forum hosted by the City of Seattle. He also testified at HB 2870’s senate hearing. He alleged that WSLCB staff engaged in a bribery scheme during public comments at the agency’s June 24th Board Meeting.
    • Shareef Watkins (audio - 4m)
    • Charles Caldwell, former cannabis industry employee (audio - 3m)
    • Aaron Barfield, Black Excellence in Cannabis (BEC, audio - 10m, audio - 2m, audio - 3m)
    • Carlene Comrie (audio - 2m)
    • John Novak, Viper PAC and 420leaks (audio - 3m)
      • Novak previously spoke about equity at Seattle’s cannabis equity forum on February 22nd and testified in opposition to HB 2870 on February 25th.
      • Novak said that since 2010 he’d lobbied the legislature “for patients, for consumer rights.” He talked about a pattern he’d seen of WSLCB asking for greater enforcement authority from the State “to conduct criminal investigations and to arrest people for various crimes. They’ve also asked for mutual cooperation authority so they could work with other police agencies.” Novak pointed to whistleblowers who have said Enforcement Officers “have not been given peace officer status, yet they’re behaving like police officers.” He asserted that “these issues need to be addressed” and claimed that when he told the Chairman of the Washington State House Public Safety Committee (WA House PS), Representative Roger Goodman, he “turned white and didn’t realize that they’d already been engaging in these activities.”
      • Novak asked that WSLCB “stop raiding patients in their homes. Stop raiding people in their homes” and focus on business regulation “not regulating people in their homes.” As a medical cannabis patient and taxpayer, he didn’t “appreciate my taxpayer dollars being used in this fashion. Start regulating the businesses and recalling some of these products that are affecting my health.”
      • Nordhorn addressed Novak’s remarks and “confusion across the state on the authority for LCB” shared by “all limited-authority law enforcement agencies” (audio - 6m).
        • He elaborated that WSLCB didn’t “do criminal enforcement over all of the laws in the state but we do criminal enforcement and we are empowered and expected to do criminal enforcement in specific areas of law,” including state cannabis laws found in Washington’s Uniform Controlled Substances Act (UCSA). This gave WSLCB Enforcement “the expectation to do the oversight, not only regulatory, but also the criminal oversight areas for different issues.” Operating without a license was a crime for both alcohol and cannabis, Nordhorn said, and state law provided them “statewide jurisdiction, but in limited subject matter.”
        • Nordhorn acknowledged that WSLCB had asked lawmakers for “parity” with alcohol laws which would “provide a lot more latitude around offenses that are engaging in any manufacturing, transportation, possession, etcetera of alcohol.” Whereas in the UCSA, he asserted “it just says you have a duty to enforce these laws.” When other agencies asked for their cooperation in investigations “that’s where we don’t actually have the same level of authority.” 
        • Nordhorn noted there was “some risk management on the part of the organization to make sure that the officers are conducting themselves in the same manner, in the same way every time.”
        • Though they focused on licensees, Nordhorn described his officers as “experts in the field...and we provide those support services to our local law enforcement partners” adding that WSLCB “typically” didn’t begin investigating “unlicensed activity on our own.” Agency enforcement did participate in police task forces or when “requested by the local authorities.” He maintained that WSLCB had “no interest in becoming a general enforcement authority law enforcement agency” and that officers were focused on regulating “in a responsible manner.”
    • Paul Brice (audio - <1m)
    • Christopher King, journalist and civil rights lawyer (audio - 4m)
      • See King’s comments during the first session.
      • King picked up on his comments from the prior engagement, saying that the identified problems had been apparent for “the better part of a decade.” Now, with a task force given “only the authority to make recommendations, it’s just, it’s all, you know, kabuki theater to me.”
      • King said that Nordhorn’s assertion that the agency had “any type of criminal investigative authorities, that’s going to be tested this week in federal court” in a lawsuit with Novak as “a co-plaintiff.” He argued that the “plain language” of the statute didn’t “indicate that LCB has authority whatsoever with respect to marijuana because [RCW] 66.44.010 only applies to liquor.” He believed this was the reason the agency supported legislation to expand their authority, HB 1626, which failed to pass in 2019. King read part of the bill which would have amended RCW 66.44.010 to say “the board shall have the power to enforce the penal provisions of this title and the penal laws of this state relating to the manufacture, importation, transportation, possession, distribution and sale of liquor, marijuana, tobacco, and vapor products.” Furthermore, he viewed the Washington Mutual Aid Peace Officer Powers Act, as not applying to officers lacking Washington’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy training. He asked, “Why should we trust the LCB, when they can’t even approach racial equity for the past seven or eight years, now we’re going to trust them to be honest about their legal authority in the first place? I think not.”
      • Hollins said King’s hesitancy at trusting WSLCB came through and felt that in any damaged relationship when “people say that things are going to get better or they’re going to make changes, it can be harder to believe them until you actually see some changes being made.”
    • Priscilla Ray (audio - 4m)
      • Question about task force member equity views
    • Crystal (audio - 3m)
      • Question about a processor application window
    • Anonymous (audio - 1m)
      • Question about where to find more information on the task force
    • Jim MacRae, Straight Line Analytics (audio - 9m)
    • Christina Purciful (audio - 1m)
      • Question about when other license types would be available
      • Response from Thompson (audio - 6m).
    • Brice (audio - 2m).
    • Zack Fairley, former cannabis industry employee (audio - 3m)
    • Conley (audio - 1m, audio - 7m)
    • Oscar Velasco-Schmitz, Dockside Cannabis Co-Founder (audio - 1m)
      • Velasco-Schmitz asked, “Are current licensees barred from applying for these licenses in the future?”
      • Thomspon replied, “no, you’re not barred from applying for this program” by already having a cannabis license. 
    • Paula Sardinas, CAAA’s representative on the task force, joined the call as she’d been receiving “questions and comments” throughout the engagement and wanted to offer some context and perspective (audio - 9m).
      • See Sardinas’ comments during the first session.
      • Sardinas first responded to Velasco-Schmitz’s question about current licensees applying for more business locations through the social equity program: “I think it’s causing some consternation...that folks who are already in the industry, who may be, according to the current law, on multiple licenses, are going to now jump in and cannibalize what they believe are 34 licenses.”
      • Sardinas expected the task force would first meet “in about a month” and would reach out to “all of the different community advocates in groups, we want to hear your voices in an advisory capacity, but the law is specific, the task force will determine” what constitutes a social equity plan or disparate impact, whether the current license cap is sufficient, and “whether licenses need to be awarded in other verticals.” She asserted that the task force would work for “a real social equity effort based on, as the bill says, the communities most impacted by the war on drugs.”
      • Sardinas said it was clear from research that “people of color being of black and African descent, have almost a four time disparate impact” in facing cannabis arrests. She anticipated that once the task force had reviewed available information “we should be doing the work, in conjunction and partnership with the communities, to make sure those licenses go to the people that have been hurt the most by the war on drugs and I-502.”
      • Sardinas, who described herself as “an independent person who has worked in cannabis for 25 years,” was at that time speaking to cannabis industry members in Las Vegas “looking at what they’re doing on social equity here so we bring those best practices.” She said, “in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts, all of the social equity programs have failed. In three years California issued three licenses, Illinois’ has issued zero, and Massachusetts is just a cluster.” Sardinas claimed that she’d “worked a lot with those people,” and she believed they made “really good efforts.” She felt Washington could be different by taking public input into consideration while learning from other programs.
      • Sardinas encouraged citizens to “use the task force to move those changes forward” and to “put our energy towards” fixing the system. She said, “we already acknowledge I-502 was disastrous for communities of color” as “a lot of people who identify as black and African American had successful dispensaries before this law.” Sardinas was looking for specific ideas around “how do we now go forward and a) make sure the system isn’t gamed, b) make sure that we have the appropriate licenses, what does the community want? What are the needs? And c) what does that program need to look like?”
      • Sardinas also felt that “there are some things that have gotten better” at WSLCB over the last year which “had a financial and real impact on the lives of black people.” She didn’t want people’s “passion and the pain to deflect from what, something really good that can happen.” Noting that Colorado was developing a social equity program as well, Sardinas believed HB 2870 was better than Colorado’s law, but “we’re a little bit behind at community engagement.” 
    • Mac McCool (audio - 3m)
    • Aaron Bossett, Black Cannabis Commission (BCC, audio - 1m)
  • With the last BIPOC engagement forthcoming, Board Member Ollie Garrett remained hopeful that participant contributions would improve the agency and help reshape the regulated marketplace.
    • Hollins said the third meeting scheduled for October 12th may utilize a “different virtual platform,” potentially Zoom, which may be “easier to facilitate.” She encouraged participants to watch for changes to WSLCB’s social equity events page (audio - 1m). Hollins thanked participants and also asked those attending to let others know about the BIPOC engagements as “the more people we hear from the more information that the task force will have to help advise them” (audio - 1m).
    • Garrett found that it “was really interesting and good listening to the feedback” (audio - 3m).
      • Garrett said she had asked for outreach events “so I’m not the only one hearing what you guys are sharing with me, have been sharing with me, and my voice is the only voice going back into the LCB.” Garrett observed that she’d heard “a lot of mixed messages here...some of the messages I’ve heard was ‘if you are going to give licenses in the community it should be us who live in the community,’ but then I hear some saying just the opposite.”
      • Garrett wanted conversations between the public and the agency to continue to “make sure when we’re coming to some resolution...that we’re all talking in consistent voices.” Garrett said that equity had been one of her goals since joining the Board, when she’d heard complaints about WSLCB’s treatment of African Americans from the community but “how, sitting inside the LCB, I’m hearing something different.” She was “realizing a lot of it was processes” leading to disparate licensing.
      • Garrett was hopeful that the goal of the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force “would be to continue to listen as we try to come up with a good social equity plan that can work for the community.”

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