WA SECTF - Work Group - Disproportionately Impacted Communities - Public Meeting
(April 13, 2021) - Lessons Learned

No More Drug War

A presentation on cannabis social equity programs outside Washington state showcased the benefits of using data to qualify equity applicants and risks of relying solely on racial identities.

Here are some observations from the Tuesday April 13th Washington State Legislative Task Force on Social Equity in Cannabis Disproportionately Impacted Communities Work Group (WA SECTF - Work Group - Disproportionately Impacted Communities) public meeting.

My top 2 takeaways:

  • Task Force Co-Chair Paula Sardinas went over social equity programs in other states to help work group members develop a definition for “disproportionately impacted communities” to be used in evaluating social equity applicants.
    • Prior to the creation of WA SECTF via legislation in 2020, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) had staff research practices in other states in 2019, resulting in a white paper on the subject.
    • Sardinas started off communicating what she’d learned from "over 30 years looking at cannabis, but in particular to disproportionality." Other jurisdictions had been “attempting to do this,” she said, “and nobody really has passed the litmus test” of incentivizing an equitable legal cannabis market “correctly” (audio - 13m)
      • She mentioned a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that used “the proportionality of arrests for communities of color and the war on drugs as the main litmus test for determining who is considered to have a disproportional impact” and that this data was considered in creating the 2020 law establishing the social equity program and task force. “We referred to that report over and over,” Sardinas explained, finding “it’s a good place to start with ‘how do we define [equity] and what have we learned?’”
      • Sardinas stated a “group of African American men” approached CAAA after they “had been speaking out with the LCB for a long, long time about their impacts in cannabis...were it not for a group of Black male advocates we wouldn’t have” a law to promote social equity in cannabis and “we wouldn’t have this task force.” The intent of the law “was always to elevate those people who had dispensaries” in “the cannabis industry before it became legal, she added, finding that the treatment of “owners and business leaders before the legalization, and after, was atrocious.”
      • Sardinas turned to social equity systems outside Washington, saying some included expunging or vacating cannabis convictions, “therefore, as part of their program, people have been released from jail and those applicants have taken priority in legislation when it came to licensing.” She said other programs emphasized creating “entrepreneurial or business opportunities around cannabis.”
        • In 2019, two cannabis-specific conviction reforms were enacted, Governor Jay Inslee’s Marijuana Justice Initiative, and SB 5605 allowing vacating of cannabis misdemeanor convictions. It’s Cannabis Observer’s understanding that neither program has been used extensively.
      • Part of the challenge for Washington officials was “defining for the purpose of social equity, what disproportionately impacted areas are,” Sardinas told participants. They were looking for “intersectionality” between police jurisdictions and zip codes, she commented. “Basically if you’ve lived in a census tract of an area that has a high rate of poverty” which aligned with “crime statistics and the arrests in your area” dating from 1980 (“the impetus for the war on drugs”), she argued you would be highly likely “to rise to the top of that level when we’re talking about disproportionality.” Sardinas said the economic impact to areas from drug enforcement was also considered “if you reside in what we call ‘the communities of color’” both in terms of average income but also “we’re pulling mothers and fathers out” of homes, meaning those left in a household may have relied on “some sort of other state or federal subsidy.” Taken together, she described how “these would be your top-tier folks qualifying for a social equity program.”
      • Since the law defined equity applicants, in part, as someone who “has been convicted of a marijuana offense or is a family member of such an individual,” Sardinas said “there’s been a lot of debate about” how Washington would define “family.” She talked about how there were  “a lot of grandparents who have been since, you know those early [19]80s, raising these children” and whether that level of familial relation would be recognized by the program, as well as “someone who may not be related to you by blood but who has raised that child, or fostered that child, or been left to care for someone in community.” Sardinas said there were “a lot of aunts and uncles who are not related to us by blood, but they’ve been impacted by the war on drugs by virtue of the fact that they’ve had to step in and they’ve had to raise those children,” She called the distinction an issue work group members should “be really thoughtful about.” Awareness of how “that structural and systemic racism then feed out into the broader community, and then how do we capture those folks as disproportionately impacted for the purpose of saying ‘who should actually get these licenses,’” was the foundation of what WA SECTF was attempting to do, she explained.
      • Sardinas believed “the Ohio model” had been “phenomenal” although it was ruled “to be unconstitutional but it specifically mentioned in their law the use of race, and included particular races, when they did the intersectionality of the data.” She remarked that the Court’s decision wasn’t that “we couldn’t prove or didn’t prove that racism existed, it was because when you layer it with the intersectionality of cannabis the judge ruled that this industry was too new and you would have to in particular prove there had been racial harm done in cannabis to be able to use race. It wasn’t enough for us to use ACLU data or [U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation] FBI Crime Statistics.” Sardinas said there would need to be Washington-specific information to prove “that folks of a particular race have had a disproportionate impact because of their race as it relates to their ability to own or operate a canna-business for us to pass” program language that could meet the “strict scrutiny" standard outlined for the work group on March 24th. She added that she’d cited this standard when asked why “didn’t you just say ‘Black’ in the bill?” as she’d wanted to avoid a similar court decision on those grounds. Instead, “we determined that there was a way that we could point to specific races, specific genders, specific disproportionality, by using a data subset, not necessarily saying ‘Black or Indigenous, or Latinx,” she stated, allowing “the data to point to those people.” Sardinas identified California and Illinois as states with equity systems focusing on data sets showing disproportionately impacted communities rather than explicitly crafting laws using race.
      • She felt that feedback the work group would give to the task force would make them “probably one of the most important work groups in our social equity work” as the WSLCB licensing program couldn’t begin “before we get the data that this work group is going to produce.” Sardinas included that transparency in WA SECTF decisionmaking was one way for the group to “be thoughtful and deliberate” in building trust with the communities that had been negatively impacted by cannabis policies so far.
    • For reasons not publicly disclosed, Task Force Co-Chair Paula Sardinas announced her resignation from the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs (CAAA), the group she was appointed to represent on the task force. Lead task force staffer Christy Curwick Hoff confirmed via email that Sardinas would not continue as Co-Chair. Sardinas remained scheduled to brief the WA SECTF Technical Assistance and Mentorship Work Group on Tuesday May 11th in her capacity as President and CEO of FMS Global Strategies.
  • Several work group members and citizens had questions or comments regarding how to qualify people or neighborhoods disproportionately affected by drug war policing.
    • Cherie MacLeod, WA SECTF appointee representing the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and work group Co-Lead (audio - 8m)
      • MacLeod asked about Sardinas’ involvement in drafting HB 2870, the 2020 social equity in cannabis law, and the meaning of “high rate” when used in relation to metrics for disproportionately impacted areas or communities such as poverty or cannabis convictions. “At the time...was there any thought where ‘high’ is,” she wondered, as the work group would be advising on said metrics. Sardinas responded that the phrasing was based “on data I gathered from [the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] NORML in Washington, a study that had been done at the time by both [University of Washington] UW and [Washington State University] WSU, and for me, high was three times the arrest [rate] of a White Washingtonian.”
      • Sardinas said there was “intersectionality” when looking at arrest rates compared to census tract data on income and employment “back to 1981 and accounted for the fact that due to gentrification African Americans or Latinx folks, people of color, were no longer located in the Central District.” Describing how she’d begun to compare “which counties have an arrest rate of 2.5 times as my multiple, or higher, for simple cannabis arrests” along with rates of welfare program utilization, Sardinas reported that even people who “make $60 or $70,000 in Washington state, especially in Seattle, you’re not rich. You probably can’t even afford a house in Seattle and you probably don’t live in King County.” She commented that this was more complex than simply knowing which groups of people “should qualify,” because the definition of disproportionate impact was “not intended just to catch the least of thee, but it’s also intended to get” people who’d experienced “another form of disparate impact.” 
      • Additionally, if applicants were evaluated on more than one metric, “how are you interlaying those intersections on the grid,” she asked rhetorically, stating that Ohio’s program had been able to “capture people at all different income levels” who still met “six different points of how, structurally and systemically, the war on drugs has had a disparate impact on their lives.” Sardinas considered the work group’s contribution to be “very intentional work” and was thankful for the “good policy people who understand it is not just the fact that I may be Black, and I may be a woman, and my brother spent 25 years in prison” but that there were less obvious intersections as well. She was striving for a definition to give the task force that would include prospective applicants like “that young man who is considering selling cannabis on the corner...to that professional person who may have had to take in children and raise them and continue to be their support to this day.” Moreover, Sardinas was in favor of prioritization recognizing some had been more impacted than others so long as “a wide lens” was applied while still “centering anti-Black racism.”
    • Yasmin Trudeau, WA SECTF appointee representing the Washington State Office of the Attorney General (WA OAG) and work group member (audio - 8m)
      • Trudeau was encouraged by Sardinas’ explanation of family, saying she’d noticed a “trend” in state and federal law supporting “broader definitions of family.” She asked about other state equity systems and whether Sardinas had seen “where the family definition has come into question and do you have any advice based on what other states have done?” Sardinas answered that she’d looked “at following the definition that folks are using for expanding paid family leave, that really got the conversation going in Washington.” She said definitions of family had expanded since the coronavirus pandemic and for cannabis equity programs the definition varied. “Some folks have gone with ‘immediate families up to grandparents,’” but she leaned towards adapting the state’s expanded family and medical leave statutes which had been “better defined” by lawmakers and WA OAG as to “what family is.”
      • Sardinas also called attention to a handout on social equity programs from Massachusetts she’d found useful which compared other state efforts on the issue, in particular Ohio’s legal challenge, and “give you some of the research so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with our work groups.” She hoped the research would be a response to “those who say we’re not doing enough to prioritize Black or African American,” as the documentation would show obstacles to that approach “that are not exclusive to Washington state.”
      • “The industry, not just in Washington, but nationwide, is too White, it is too greedy, it is not sharing the wealth,” Sardinas remarked. Her goal was for “all people in all communities [to] have a fair share and an equal opportunity to provide for their families” while developing community and family wealth regardless of whether a person had been arrested for cannabis themselves. She wanted Washington to become “a leader in this space.”
    • Sarah Ross-Viles, Public Health - Seattle & King County Youth Health and Marijuana Program Manager, and work group member (audio - 8m
      • Ross-Viles returned to a demographic question of how to set up the “description of a community so that it does not benefit folks who weren’t impacted but who happened to live in that community or perhaps moved into that community as it gentrified.” As other factors mentioned, and potential “ranking” of them, reassured her, she invited Sardinas to expand upon a community description “to not create eligibility for folks who weren’t impacted.” Sardinas replied that the time period being looked at, from 1980 on forward, was chosen to capture the impact of the crack cocaine era as well as the beginning of gentrification in the Seattle area and the poorer populations displaced by that evolution. She claimed that Clark County had “the highest number of school aged children who are on free and reduced lunch” and suggested looking at “what is their population of communities of color relative to the rest of the state.” Looking at this and metrics like rates for poverty or enrollment in Affordable Care Act coverage while casting “the biggest net possible,” should be done, Sardinas advised, and then eliminate applicants through careful scrutiny of applicable data.
      • Looking at underage communities, she commented that Ross-Viles might wonder “what our youth mass incarceration looks like. What does juvenile justice look like in those census tracts?” She noted that American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) Director of Political Strategies Alison Holcomb was part of the work group and speculated that she might have information from the organization on the “school to prison pipeline” that WA SECTF could use. Sardinas noted that combining data points consistently showed African American men were targeted for arrests, “even someplace as White as Spokane, they have an eight times arrest rate, it was Black males.” She observed that the drug war itself should be broadly construed, as “we know it begins with things like the war on cannabis and crack, but fast forward 40 years, what does the war on drugs look like today?”
      • Sardinas concluded that defining disproportionately impacted communities was “going to become the heartbeat of what we do, so when you guys get this part done we’ll be in a much better position to serve and to help community because we were thoughtful.”
    • MacLeod noted that under HB 1443, which had just passed the state senate at the time, the timeframe for WA SECTEF’s final report to WSLCB and lawmakers had moved from a fixed time period of living “five of the past ten years” to an open ended timeframe. “Even if the bill ends up saying something that we don’t agree with as community we can always make recommendations as a task force” based on preferred “bookends” for periods when applicants could have resided in a disproportionately impacted area, Sardinas argued. Additionally, issues like homlessness or “the landlord/tenant side” would have to be considered as well, she said. Curwick Hoff noted that the most recent version of HB 1443 “doesn’t provide a timeframe or a time period and it instead allows LCB to adopt in rule based on recommendations” from WA SECTF, meaning the work group had “the opportunity to use the best data available to us to really define what we think the most appropriate timeframe should be” (audio - 4m). 
      • HB 1443 was passed by the legislature on April 15th and signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on May 3rd with an effective date of July 25th, with the language identified by Curwick Hoff retained in the bill.
    • Jennifer English, Spaceworks Tacoma Training Coordinator (audio - 3m).
      • English called for representation in the work group for Pierce County, mentioning the county’s equity index map which she felt contained many overlapping data points with the ones mentioned in the presentation. She advised attempting to combine the map with the census data discussed to find disproportionate areas. MacLeod noted that the City of Tacoma had submitted the map already and it was being reviewed “carefully” for use by the task force. English added that Spaceworks applied a “rubric” to applications received “to figure out if we’re meeting our target group of folks.”
      • In July 2020, the Tacoma City Council formally requested additional retail locations be approved by the state and required that all future cannabis retail business owners in the city qualify as social equity applicants.

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