WSLCB - Engagement - BIPOC
(September 29, 2020)

Tuesday September 29, 2020 5:00 PM - 8:00 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

An at times contentious facilitated meeting provided an opportunity for agency leadership to hear from people of color about social equity in the industry and WSLCB’s practices.

Here are some observations from the Tuesday September 29th Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) engagement with black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • The BIPOC engagement was the first in a series intended to gather input around social equity in the cannabis industry as well as the WSLCB’s own diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices.
  • Several officials shared their perspectives on equity issues ahead of public comment, including Board Member Ollie Garrett and Senator Rebecca Saldaña.
    • WSLCB staff presented a slidedeck with information on:
    • Board Member Ollie Garrett talked about being a WSLCB Board Member since 2016, “a small business owner,” president of Tabor100 (“an association working to further economic power, education, excellence, and social equity for African Americans and the community at large”), and being appointed to the task force to represent WSLCB (audio - 8m).
      • Garrett said the purpose of the event was “threefold.”
        • “Improve[d] communication between the LCB and the public, especially communities of color.” She acknowledged the frequent complaints from minority communities that “they were left out of the cannabis system, both at the start in 2013 and later in 2015 when the gray market for medical cannabis and the adult use market were merged” via SB 5052. Garrett wanted potential equity applicants to meet agency leaders and understand “how our roles may intersect with you potentially applying for a license in the future.” She noted that aside from herself, WSLCB leaders listening included:
          • 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
        • “All LCB staff [will] hear the message conveyed here today.” Garrett shared that all staff would be provided the engagement’s video recording, which was published by the agency the following day.
        • “Hear[ing] about the work of the social equity task force” from Garrett herself, Thompson, and Senator Rebecca Saldaña who was appointed to represent Senate Democrats on the task force. Garrett noted that the task force’s formation in HB 2870 began as agency request legislation put forward by WSLCB.
          • The Board agreed to recommend Garrett for appointment to the task force by legislative leadership, and the first round of appointments were announced on July 29th.
      • During the merging of the gray medical market with the legalized recreational market and prior to her tenure on the Board, Garrett said she'd heard from dispensary owners “angry” over being “left out of the licensed, regulated system” after submitting applications and “doing what they thought they needed to do to follow through to get a license.” Governor Jay Inslee heard “an earful and he listened,” she felt, as evidenced by her appointment to the Board “to bring my perspective to the LCB.”
      • Since joining the agency, Garrett said she’d pushed to “open up licens[es] that were sitting dormant in communities with bans and moratoriums” by allowing blocked licensees to maintain less expensive Cannabis Retail Title Certificates in 2018. Should cities and counties overturn restrictions, certificate holders “had the opportunity to get licensed again.” Garrett also brought her knowledge on what “was irritating the African American community” about WSLCB’s licensing process, and worked to institute implicit bias training “led by Dr. Hollins” who was subsequently contracted to facilitate the BIPOC engagements.
      • Garrett talked about being inspired by equity policy possibilities at New York’s Marijuana: Justice, Equity, Reinvestment Conference in 2018, something she’d discussed at the WSLCB Cannabis Advisory Council (CAC) meeting in January 2019. Her experience at that conference helped motivate Garrett and the agency to develop request legislation which culminated in HB 2870.
      • As a board member, Garrett was also involved in WSLCB’s “review [of] enforcement, penalties, and decisions reached...between licensees and our Enforcement division.” Saying she understood the “threat and pressure of progressive penalties” on small businesses, she had challenged adjudication settlements that were “egregious, and many times they are reconsidered.” She felt that WSLCB’s “system is not, has not been perfect” and that while “there were mistakes made, we are willing to change.”
    • Agency Director Rick Garza delved into the history of Initiative 502 and its impact on WSLCB and the State (audio - 8m).
      • After passage of the ballot initiative in 2012, the agency “found itself under enormous pressure to get the system up and running” from lawmakers and the public. WSLCB hosted forums throughout 2013 to get public input on licensing and rule development, and later hosted “in-person seminars on how to get a license” which mapped out roadblocks such as “the consequences of not having completed paperwork by hard deadlines.” 
      • Although the agency had been “proud” of the new and unique regulatory system that emerged from their work, Garza said WSLCB staff had “learned since there were some communities that were left out of the process, excluded from the process.” He pointed out that the first states to legalize cannabis had not considered social equity, while other jurisdictions included an equity focus in subsequent years. Garza acknowledged that “the playing field” was not equal. He didn’t believe the licensing system improved during the merging of dispensaries into the retail system in 2015 when there were over 10 applicants for each available license. “It was, frankly, a missed opportunity,” Garza conceded. The social equity task force provided “a new opportunity...to address past oversights” enabling WSLCB to take “a fundamental new approach to our role as regulators.”
      • Garza noted the agency’s Cannabis 2021 campaign involved “sharing responsibility with other state agencies”, “enhancing access to medical cannabis” and “instituting social equity within the system.”
      • Garza talked about WSLCB’s goal to emphasize “education over enforcement,” a topic he’d spoken to at greater length during the September 16th executive management team (EMT) meeting.
      • Garza concluded his remarks by describing the WSLCB as “a dynamic organization with a history” of accepting “fundamental change. We are a can-do board and agency” that had convened the event to “listen, learn, and act.”
    • Enforcement Chief Justin Nordhorn (audio - 6m)
    • Director of Licensing Becky Smith went through the initial development of the state’s cannabis licensing system, indicating that it had become “a model for other states and countries to emulate our success but also...to learn from our mistakes” (audio - 9m). 
      • In 2013, applicants “had to make it through...75 double-blind lotteries.” Smith indicated over 2,000 applicants vied for 334 retail locations allotted among cities and counties.
      • In 2015 during the merging of the medical market, another 222 retail allotments were sought by thousands of new or returning applicants in a prioritized process. Smith said the agency issued licenses for all the new allotments and more since “there were jurisdictions that no one applied for during I-502’s lottery process.”
      • During her review of Social Equity License Qualifications defined in statute, Smith said that while agency staff labored to be understanding of “past circumstances,” WSLCB judged whether an applicant's criminal records indicated they “might put the citizens of Washington state at risk.” She said a point system designed by the agency attempted to weigh arrests and convictions while offering applicants the chance to submit a statement about the circumstances of their record.
        • Smith said the Enforcement division had reviewed approximately 16,500 criminal background checks, finding “over 150” applicants who had reached the agency limit of eight or more points. 47 were “denied based only on criminal history.” She considered that the criminal record exceptions the agency built into vetting “may not be enough” and the point system itself “may have caused some applicants to think that they could not obtain a license.” Smith said staff were looking at changes “to that accumulation of points.”
        • While state law says WSLCB "may consider any prior criminal arrests or convictions" of applicants, the agency chose to create rules for criminal history checks. One declared they "will conduct an investigation of the applicants' criminal history" and another says WSLCB will investigate "all applicants' marijuana law or rule administrative violation history." However, other rules more leniently explain "a criminal background check may be required" or the agency "may not issue a marijuana license" to those with certain criminal or administrative offenses on their record.
      • The active license count Smith provided showed:
        • 146 Producers
        • 943 Producer/Processors
        • 233 Processors
        • 485 Retailers
        • 13 Transportation 
        • 1 Research
        • “Additionally, we have 48 retail certificate holders” which weren’t included as part of the license count, Smith stated.
        • Smith's last licensing review was in October 2019.
      • Smith reviewed licenses that had been “discontinued or revoked” as of March 2020: 
        • 21 Producer
        • 183 Producer/Processor
        • 42 Processor
        • 14 Retail
      • Smith provided minority ownership statistics as of February 2020 for producers/processors and as of July 2020 for retailers, saying the statistics changed as licenses were bought and sold, and WSLCB updated their records quarterly.
    • Director of Legislative Relations Chris Thompson on HB 2870 (audio - 10m)
    • Senator Rebecca Saldaña, appointed to represent Senate Democrats on the social equity task force, said she represented some of Seattle’s oldest minority-majority communities and as the daughter of “immigrant farmworkers” she approached policymaking through the “lens” of laborers and entrepreneurs (audio - 11m).
      • Saldaña began with an acknowledgement that participants such as herself were living on and participating from lands of indigenous communities which predated Washington state. She honored “their legacy and continued leadership.”
      • Saldaña had learned more about the state’s cannabis industry since her appointment to the Washington State Senate Labor and Commerce Committee (WA Senate LBRC) in 2017 but had already recognized a “lack of justice in our criminal justice system.” She said there was “a veil of being tough on crime” that was instead promoting a “racialized approach to justice that criminalized black and brown bodies” as well as “anyone that is of lesser means” socially or economically. With legal cannabis, she saw the chance to help medical patients as well as “generating wealth” for communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.
      • With HB 2870, Saldaña worked with lawmakers, stakeholders, and WSLCB representatives to see that enforcement reform was supported in the agency’s equity changes. She pointed to the Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities as an institution already motivating government reforms to address existing disparities around health and the environment. The Council was also assigned responsibility for staffing the social equity task force, which would be overseen by Washington State Board of Health (SBOH) Health Policy Advisor Christy Curwick Hoff. Saldaña expected the task force’s first meeting would be in “late October” and said their meetings would be open to the public “most likely on a virtual platform” and Hoff would keep citizens “abreast of those meetings.”
      • Saldaña wrapped up her remarks by saying she was committed “to making sure that the retail licenses that are currently available” through the equity program “resonates with the community needs” and helped “broader conversations about what other reforms will need to be considered.” She emphasized that many changes beyond distributing existing licenses would necessitate legislative action, and she was prepared to work with stakeholders to see them passed.
  • The public weighed in for nearly two hours, including several licensees, former licensees, and those who had alleged racial bias during the agency’s earlier cannabis license application windows.
    • Zachary Fairley, former cannabis industry employee (audio - 7m).
    • Paula Sardinas, CAAA Commissioner (audio - 3m).
      • Sardinas testified during HB 2870’s House and Senate committee hearings.
      • Sardinas, the CAAA’s representative to the task force, explained that the Commission had heard from "more than 35 stakeholders" and over “700 applicants and people that have licenses” about equity in the state’s cannabis sector. She said many encountered difficulty trying to join the webinar and were texting her. Sardinas asked for a way “to recognize some of the folks” who had dialed into the event “to make them feel more included.” Hollins responded that they would attempt to alternate between those participating via WebEx software and those joining by phone.
        • At the following day’s board meeting, Cannabis Observer founder Gregory Foster talked about the difficulty he and others encountered attempting to join WSLCB's first BIPOC community outreach webinar.
        • On September 16th, Sardinas addressed the WSLCB Board to support Angel Swanson’s request to move her cannabis retail title certificate out of Lewis County, a jurisdiction with a cannabis business ban. Sardinas’ consulting firm FMS Global Strategies had been “representing Ms. Swanson’s case pro-bono.” On July 13th, Sardinas emailed WSLCB Director of Legislative Affairs Chris Thompson to communicate that Swanson and other certificate holders “cannot afford to wait.” She asked for a “path forward to help Swanson relocate her certificate to Tacoma, WA. We are simultaneously working with the City of Tacoma, who will vote [July 14th] to take action under HB 2870 to increase their number of retail stores.”
    • Kevin Oliver, Washington NORML Executive Director (audio - 3m).
    • Angel Swanson, Cannabis Retail Title Certificate Holder (audio - 12m). 
      • On September 16th, Swanson asked the Board for “immediate relief” to move her retail title certificate out of Lewis County.
      • Swanson acknowledged her history with the agency, involvement in the CAC, and participation in the cannabis industry “for over a decade now” as a former owner of several dispensaries. She said she’d opposed I-502 as her shops were "one of the few operations that actually had tracking information for the government" to count the patients they served and provide "blind information" on patient demographics to the state. 
      • By her own admission, Swanson’s story was “always anti-cannabis" and she’d never seen the plant “until I was over” 45 years old. Her husband, as well as illness in her family, led her to get involved after she found cannabis was “something that could help.”
      • While Swanson and her husband had "submitted everything online" when applying for the retail lottery in 2013, they received physical mail saying they’d been “kicked out of the lottery” less than a week before it was set to occur. After retaining a lawyer, they found other applicants who had been removed from consideration “unjustly.” In Swanson’s case, WSLCB staff disqualified her application because the business premise lease agreement had been stamped by the landlord instead of signed.
      • During the second application window merging the medical and recreational markets in 2015, Swanson reapplied as a priority applicant, believing that there were “more than enough licenses to go around for priority 1 applicants who actually qualified.” She suggested that “back dealings with some folks” using phoney pay stubs led to an influx of recreationally-focused retail applications with a medical priority status. By the time Swanson applied, the only available location was in Lewis County which moved from a moratorium on cannabis businesses to a ban in 2017. She was awarded three retail licenses and then had to lease and maintain premises for stores she couldn’t open. After fighting local officials and even trying to get new county commissioners elected, Swanson began to lobby WSLCB to create what would eventually become known as retail title certificates.
      • In joining the CAC as representative for the Marijuana Business Association (MJBA), Swanson hoped to persuade the Board to allow certificate holders to move their licenses to friendlier jurisdictions. At a board caucus in January 2018 she realized how many affected applicants were women or minorities, pushing her to perceive the issue as “a problem of equity.” Swanson requested to move retail locations to jurisdictions where there had been forfeited licenses but was told that the agency “still [had] a lot of priority ones" to review despite Swanson being a licensee “with skin in the game.”
      • Hollins asked for Swanson’s top recommendations to improve the situation. Swanson replied that she’d worked with Sardinas to add wording to Section 2(2)(b) of the HB 2870, which states those “holding an existing marijuana retailer license or title certificate for a marijuana retailer business in a local jurisdiction subject to a ban or moratorium on marijuana retail businesses may apply for a license under this section.” But delays in the task force due to COVID-19 had left her in limbo yet again and she believed retail title certificate holders shouldn’t have to wait for the group’s recommendations.
    • Brionne Corbray, former dispensary owner (audio - 10m).
      • Corbray addressed the board in October 2019 over being “targeted” for cannabis prosecution by state and federal officials and spoke at Seattle’s cannabis equity forum.
    • Aaron Barfield, Black Excellence in Cannabis (BEC, audio - 11m).
      • Barfield called out a “lack of social equity in Washington’s cannabis industry” to the board in October and December 2019.
      • Barfield began by explaining BEC opposed HB 2870 in testimony at the law’s House and Senate committee hearings after determining it was “not an effective piece of legislation" as it failed to meet BEC’s goal of “true inclusion.” He addressed the “extensive” history he had with the agency in trying to obtain a retail license. Barfield said he’d been able to “sneak into” retail ownership by being added onto a license by a partner who’d won one of the original retail lottery positions, and subsequently “everything has gone completely downhill." Having previously run a medical dispensary “successfully,” Barfield had “nothing but problems” when engaging with WSLCB staff.
      • Hollins asked him for recommendations about the “holes or concerns”
        around WSLCB he’d seen. Barfield replied that he considered the program “a wolf in sheep's clothing" which permitted the agency to sidestep past racist behavior. In all, he felt WSLCB was “not really taking any kind of responsibility for abuse of the power" which had tainted earlier licensing. Barfeld called for "additional retail licenses," as the available licenses were “basically crumbs...spread out all across the state and tied to those jurisdictions," something he’d always opposed about HB 2870.
      • Beyond more licenses, he advised a "community stakeholder review board" charged with monitoring WSLCB enforcement activities. Hollins asked whether it was fair to say Barfield wanted “accountability,” who answered that he wanted the state to “repair the damage that's been done" and include ”social justice to go along with this social equity."
    • Christopher King, journalist and civil rights lawyer (audio - 7m).
      • As an investigative journalist and civil rights lawyer, King told the group he had “worked for the State, I’ve sued the State, I’ve settled many, many civil rights cases” dealing with racial discrimination. King noted his involvement in the 1983 case of Heights Community Congress v. Hilltop Realty which found “a pattern and practice of racially discriminatory housing practices” in the realtor’s practices.
      • King said the State's cannabis licensing process was part of the “new Jim Crow” and that he’d be counsel for an upcoming lawsuit by Barfield and BEC against WSLCB’s "morally aberrant" enforcement practices. He argued that under RCW 66.44.010 the agency’s officers only had authority to enforce alcohol regulations. King said that legislation intending to expand their authority, HB 1626, failed to pass in 2019.
      • King asserted that the majority of WSLCB’s officers lacked Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA) training required to be considered “peace officers within the state of Washington.” He believed the situation was a “massive issue” which would invalidate a number of enforcement actions.
      • King was “extremely upset” and “hurt” by the treatment he’d seen others receive at the hands of law enforcement, and said the State has “a long way to go...this is going on right now!"
      • Hollins asked what King would advise beyond the lawsuit, suggesting enforcement training. King agreed, but believed that since WSLCB "by its own basic underpinnings, is unlawful" it was unable to self-correct. “Let’s get that addressed first,” he asked, "and then also address the racism that is ongoing."
    • Joy Hollingsworth, Hollingsworth Cannabis and Hemp Company Owner (audio - 8m).
      • Hollingsworth testified at HB 2870’s senate hearing.
      • Hollingsworth was a licensed tier 3 producer/processor in Shelton whose family had lived in Seattle’s Central District since 1946. She said she’d had friends impacted by disparate treatment in health, education, and policing and her company worked to use “our platform to shed light on the disparities within the industry." Of the few minority-owned cannabis businesses Hollingsworth had seen licensed, “a lot of those producer/processors and retail stores are not operating today.” She felt the industry often used African American faces and culture to sell cannabis, but did not grant equal opportunities for management “and ownership positions.” 
      • She told the group that WSLCB had lacked “a clear pathway for existing medical cannabis businesses to transfer over to the recreational market” at a time when there were more dispensaries in Seattle than Starbucks and called for “reinvesting [cannabis tax] dollars back in their communities."
      • Hollingsworth believed the “number one priority" for WSLCB should be helping educate the public and licensees while moving away from a "gotcha mentality" whereby "rules are left to officers to interpret," which led to an “imbalance and inconsistency” in the industry. She noted difficulties her family had faced from WSLCB enforcement in March 2019 as “one of the most painful experiences" her family had been through.
      • Looking at HB 2870’s Technical Assistance Program, Hollingsworth credited Sardinas for seeing the annual budget increased from $100,000 to $1.1 million annually and asked that grants be extended beyond licensees to non-profits, cannabis news websites, event organizers, lawyers, or accountants. “You don’t have to grow it, you don’t have to sell it...to be able to participate in the industry,” she observed.
      • In all, Hollingsworth said HB 2870 “isn't the best bill" but “it's a start" and called for jurisdictions to take the lead on creating “inclusive social equity plans,” particularly for those who’d been active in the former dispensary system so that they could ”create generational wealth for their family."
    • Kaidros Leek (audio - 3m).
    • Paul Brice (audio - 8m).
    • Mac McCool (audio - 3m, video).
    • Peter Manning, BEC member (audio - 7m, audio - 1m).
      • Manning previously alleged discriminatory treatment of African American applicants by WSLCB.
    • Kiara Porter (audio - 7m).
    • Ben Shelton (audio - 4m).
    • Aaron Bossett, Black Cannabis Commission (BCC, audio - 12m).
      • Bossett testified during HB 2870’s first committee hearing and at Seattle’s Cannabis Equity in Our Community forum in February.
      • Bossett began by asserting that WSLCB was using Hollins as “another gatekeeper” between the agency’s leadership and their responsibility for “the things that they have done.” He said as a member of the CAC he’d offered to assist the agency in the development of a social equity program but they’d prioritized looking outside the state to evaluate other equity policies, showing the WSLCB’s “reluctance” to fix the problem.
      • Bossett suggested that the social equity task force lacked even “one member of the community that it’s aiming to help” and was unlikely “to do anything for the black community.”
        • The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle President and CEO Michelle Merriweather was appointed as the task force member for an “Organization representing African American Community.”
      • Going further, Bossett said when he’d asked the agency to "stop using the word marijuana" he was told it would require legislation to remove the term from statute and rule, a deflection which he felt illustrated WSLCB’s reluctance to be a leader on equity. “This is all a farce, 100%,” he added.
      • Bossett then criticized Hollins for “cutting off community members who have been damaged” and were “reliving trauma all over again” when speaking about their experiences with the agency before referring to former Tribal Liaison Brett Cain as a "white man who is scared of black people."
      • Bossett alleged that since Garrett was appointed to WSLCB instead of hired, the agency lacked even “one black employee.” He felt that only Nordhorn had “stepped up” to ask for black employees.
      • Hollins spoke up to ask Bossett if he wanted “any of the things that you just said, particularly directed at me, addressed?” She acknowledged the importance of participants’ “background and stories” and recognized Bossett’s call for engagement between the agency and affected parties without an intermediary like Hollins. He replied that Hollins was “not accountable to anyone except Rick Garza" and repeated his call for WSLCB “address their own social equity issues" around employee diversity and “get with it or get out of the way.”
      • As his remarks concluded Hollins asked that other participants with suggestions to improve facilitation email her.

Information Set