WSLCB - Executive Management Team
(May 12, 2021) - Social Equity

Social Equity in Cannabis

During a briefing on the development of a social equity program at WSLCB, the Board Chair sought ways to act quickly once agency staff received guidance from the equity task force.

Here are some observations from the Wednesday May 12th Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) Executive Management Team (EMT) meeting.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • Director of Legislative Affairs Chris Thompson discussed a new law expanding the state social equity in cannabis task force, and what agency staff were doing to prepare for implementing and administering a social equity program (audio - 5m).
    • Thompson brought up HB 1443, signed into law on May 3rd, noting it was sponsored by Representative Melanie Morgan, Co-Chair of the Washington State Legislative Task Force on Social Equity in Cannabis (WA SECTF). He then went over the “modifications” made by the bill, which would take effect on July 25th.
    • Technical Assistance Grant Program - The Washington State Department of Commerce would administer a program to “provide grants to social equity applicants,” Thompson established. The department would welcome additional “categories of applicants,” he said, as “producers and processors became eligible” for the assistance grants “as well as anyone issued a cannabis license between June 20th, 2020 and July 25th, 2021.” He noted grant money could help eligible applicants “to successfully launch and sustain their businesses” and there would be more activities the money could go towards as well, including “helping an applicant with their social equity plan.” Finally, he indicated the bill “authorizes commerce to create a roster of mentors that would be available to support applicants.”
    • Social Equity Program - One eligibility option for a social equity applicant had been residing in a Disproportionate Impact Area (DIA) “for five of the previous ten years,” Thompson told the group. WA SECTF members had found this system “problematic” due to “gentrification” which led to “changes in residential patterns,” he said. Instead, the “period of time, in question, that could establish eligibility will be determined by the LCB” following required “consultation provisions.” Furthermore, HB 1443 authorized “the LCB to create additional criteria by which someone could become eligible,” Thompson explained, adding “it’s unspecified what that could be.”
    • WA SECTF - Thompson explained that changes to the task force “membership, its duration, and some of its ‘to do list’” had changed. The final report from that group to the agency, governor, and lawmakers was now required “by December of 2022,” with WA SECTF appointees looking at the “social equity issues interfacing with” personal cultivation of cannabis and looking at “potentially shifting primary regulation” for cannabis production to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Section 3(9) of the HB 1443 session law outlined the new recommendation topics:
      • (c) The social equity impact of altering residential cannabis agriculture regulations;
        • Legislation around residential agriculture, sometimes known as home growing, has been proposed for several years. At publication time, HB 1019 ("Allowing residential marijuana agriculture") remained active legislation that could be taken up during the 2022 legislative session, or a special legislative session.
      • (d) The social equity impact of shifting primary regulation of cannabis production from the board to the department of agriculture, including potential impacts to the employment rights of workers;
      • (e) The social equity impact of removing nonviolent cannabis related felonies and misdemeanors from the existing point system used to determine if a person qualifies for obtaining or renewing a cannabis license;
        • 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.
      • (f) Whether to create workforce training opportunities for underserved communities to increase employment opportunities in the cannabis industry;
      • (g) The social equity impact of creating new cannabis license types; and
      • (h) Recommendations for the cannabis social equity technical assistance grant program created under RCW 43.330.540.
  • Board Member Ollie Garrett summarized the work of the social equity task force and agency leaders described WSLCB staff participation and support.
    • Garrett, WA SECTF appointee for the agency, described the task force which was "supposed to have its first meeting" in July 2020, but didn’t initially convene until October of that year. She acknowledged initial work centered on “electing and adopting the by-laws” and subsequently adopting operating principles that emphasized “anti-Black racism” and “bold action” (audio - 5m).  
      • On January 25th, members passed a motion calling for “the legislators to modify eligibility for the existing grant program,” she said, and that “with the LCB in mind, the task force also recommended changes to the underlying criteria for social equity applicants from one solely based on place to one that allows...specific prioritization based on race.”
      • Garrett commented that five more meetings of the task force had been scheduled “from May 25th through December the 14th.” She then identified the three active work groups at the time:
        • Disproportionately Impacted Communities (WA SECTF - Work Group - Disproportionately Impacted Communities): Garrett reported that this group had “met three times” (technically four) and had more meetings scheduled. The group focused on identifying disproportionately impacted geographic units that were “manageable in size” using census data “initially” to identify “census blocks to try to prioritize applicants.” Garrett noted that the definition of who counted as an applicant’s family member was also something the group was considering.
        • Licensing (WA SECTF - Work Group - Licensing): Garrett explained that she was a member of this work group, which had “five more meetings scheduled from June to early November.” The group would weigh “lessons learned from other states/cities social equity programs” and seek “to avoid unintentional consequences in licensing people from the populations intended to get benefits from the program.” 
        • Technical Assistance and Mentorship (WA SECTF - Work Group - TA and Mentorship): Garrett mentioned work group members first met on May 11th and “had five more scheduled through November.” Members were developing “guidance to the Department of Commerce” on the grant program. Garrett added that HB 1443 authorized Commerce officials “to build a roster of mentors who can be contracted to provide additional help” to applicants.
      • Garrett talked about what WSLCB had been doing to assist WA SECTF including a licensing presentation, support staff, weekly meetings between agency and task force staff, and contracting with University of Washington (UW) Professor of Sociology Alexes Harris and UW graduate student Michele Cadigan who had been researching court records and presenting to the task force as well as work groups.
        • WSLCB staff first mentioned following Harris and Cadigan’s research in October 2019.
      • She concluded that the task force had been “working hard to provide guidance to both the LCB and Commerce to launch” the program. Garrett pointed out that the task force would deliver a final report in December 2022 and “expire June 30th of 2023.”
    • Thompson talked about how Disproportionately Impacted Communities work group Co-Chair Christopher Poulos had proposed a definition of family, as individuals could qualify as equity applicants if they or a family member had a conviction for drug offenses on their criminal record. “Family” had not been explicitly defined in the law, and Thompson remarked that Director of Policy and External Affairs Justin Nordhorn had provided Poulos with “some statutory provisions about family and definitions of family.” He described Poulos as “very appreciative” of the input, and agreed with Garrett’s assessment that WSLCB staff were “doing everything we can to, to work hand-in-glove with the task force.” Thompson then called attention to “more documents” WSLCB licensing representatives put together for task force members and was clear to agency leadership that staff were "not just sitting on our hands waiting." Citing the licensing division specifically, he referred to staff having “done yeoman’s work” to provide information and there were “a lot of hands on deck” (audio - 4m).
    • Director of Licensing Becky Smith emphasized it was “not just one or two staff in attendance" at WA SECTF events trying to “hear the conversation that’s happening” and participate as “folks that are listening to what...input that the community has” for WSLCB. She noted that licensing staff attended all breakout sessions during work group meetings “to provide the information that we already have at hand” and look into issues raised. Smith then said staff had “done a lot of work” regarding local governments and were “working with those jurisdictions that have bans and moratoriums.” That effort was starting to show results as “the board may have heard...that Lewis County is looking at whether or not they want to lift their ban,” she indicated. Smith attributed this change to the efforts of Cannabis Licensing Manager Kevin Milovac and Kaitlin Bamba, Licensing Management Analyst, who had been reaching out to municipal officials (audio - 2m).
      • Lewis County moved from a moratorium on cannabis businesses to a ban in 2017. In 2019, Garrett described the county officials’ “strong” opposition to changing their policy.
  • Board Chair David Postman had several questions about actions agency representatives could take in advance preparation for task force guidance.
    • Postman first asked about Lewis County, wanting to know what the agency would do following a jurisdiction ending a cannabis ban or moratorium. “Do we have authority, then, to do something towards social equity,” he wondered, “or are we waiting...for some action on behalf of the task force?” Smith acknowledged that there were seven retail title certificate holders in the county who would get priority in opening up stores under licenses they’d already been granted. Some of these were held by “people of color,” she indicated, saying any certificate holders could “get licensed right away” (audio - 4m).
      • In September 2020, retail title certificate holder Angel Swanson asked the board to allow her to move her certificate out of Lewis County, deeming indefinite title certification a “long, arduous, and financially debilitating process.” FMS Global Strategies President and CEO Paula Sardinas, the former WA SECTF Co-Chair, was “representing Ms. Swanson’s case pro-bono” at that time. Swanson was later selected to join the WA SECTF licensing work group.
      • Garrett said in 2019 that Swanson had been told by a Lewis County official it would be “over his dead body before that ban is lifted.”
    • Postman then asked where WSLCB had “authority to act, and when” if jurisdictions without retail title certificate holders removed ordinances prohibiting cannabis businesses and “what process has to take determine the disadvantaged status” of social equity applicants. Thompson responded that staff were “not ready to, to pull the trigger on” that yet as there were “a number of things that have to fall into place first.” This included receipt of WA SECTF guidance on disproportionately impacted areas and how long an individual would need to have lived there, he said, as well as “some additional eligibility criteria, and we would have to do that by rule.”
      • Section 1(6) of the session law indicated WSLCB “may adopt rules to implement this section” whereas staff generally indicate the agency will undertake formal rulemaking to define the social equity program.
    • Next, Postman said that WA SECTF members “won’t necessarily wait til, you know, its final days to issue one big, huge report” and that agency representatives “may get it in iterative fashion.” He inquired about the timing for the program, and what could be considered “best case” for implementation. Thompson estimated that the new eligibility requirements wouldn’t take effect until July 25th and “I know it takes several months to adopt rules under most circumstances.” Given he was unsure of when they’d receive guidance and “we need those components as well as the time guess is towards the end of the year...would be an aggressive timeline; not impossible” (audio - 2m).
    • Postman’s final question presumed a less than “best case” situation where guidance or data was delayed. He wondered what agency authority there was “to try to address social equity issues...what do we have in our quiver?” Thompson said a proposal for “new license types is, is a really hot topic at the task force, they’re talking a lot about that” but he felt WSLCB power to take action with the goal of increasing cannabis market equity was “pretty limited." While it would be possible for the board to “consider requesting new authority,” he voiced a preference for "working, sort of, in tandem" with WA SECTF members before "taking the leap into new rules and, and new programs or, you know, those kind of revisions.” Postman clarified that he supported the task force being the leading entity on the issue while looking for “anything that the task force can chip off sooner [rather] than later.” Garrett volunteered to relay input task force members developed for the agency, or feedback the agency could give task force members. However, she understood that absent WA SECTF recommendations "our hands are kinda tied with not overstepping things." Postman was grateful for the clarity, wanting agency staff to be “open with people about this ‘cause we know that there’s some building frustration around this” (audio - 4m).  
    • Following Postman’s questions, Director Rick Garza commented that there had been “three specific ideas that we had that would have amended” HB 1443 to allow for WSLCB officials “to begin moving a little more quickly.” He echoed others’ remarks that staff were working to stay engaged with WA SECTF, the associated work groups, all while providing information or contracting with those who could. Garza asked Smith about the potential for rulemaking pertaining to the social equity laws, suggesting that staff could “open up the CR-101” as a way to “be as prepared and ready as possible” once feedback on eligibility requirements was delivered. He agreed with Thompon’s speculative timeline: “seems to make sense that it would be later in the year before we would get enough information from the task force to begin devising our rules around them” (audio - 3m).

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