LA’s Social Equity Program: Transforming Past Wrongs for a Just Future

By: Eric Lightman and Kathryn Jones

It is no secret that minority communities have been adversely affected by the War on Drugs.  Though the need for prison reform has recently come to the political forefront, it has not solved the current problems of the newly released.  Higher instances of imprisonment among marginalized groups have led to disenfranchisement as well as general exclusion from the workforce.  As a result of being targets for years, many people who were once convicted for drug charges, specifically cannabis charges, have been excluded by the legal cannabis industry today. Although states have been legalizing recreational cannabis at a rapid rate, the growing cannabis industry’s blind spot to underserved communities is finally being addressed. 

A year after the legalization of recreational cannabis use in California, the city of Los Angeles is looking to balance the scales in terms of business ownership.  The City of Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) has adopted a Social Equity Program that offers business support to individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by the previous criminalization of cannabis activities. The program not only offers business support but also expedited cannabis license application and renewal processing. Implemented earlier this year, the program’s benefits and tiered system are based on the findings of the Social Equity Analysis.  This research study aimed to locate the communities negatively affected by cannabis laws as well as disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. 

Using this research, the Social Equity Program created three tiers of program eligibility. The tiers are broken down by ownership of a business as well as economic factors. The first tier requires that an applicant must be low-income and either a) have a cannabis arrest in California prior to 2016 or b) have been a resident in a “Disproportionately Impacted Area.”  The Disproportionately Impacted Area refers to a set of zip codes that the Social Equity Analysis identified as being unfairly targeted by law enforcement.  Tier two requires the applicant to be low income and have lived in one of the above-mentioned areas for 5-10 years.  Tier three is interesting because it does not necessarily apply to marginalized groups.  Instead, tier three states that the applicant must provide business licensing and compliance support to the tier one and two applicants.  This third tier seeks to support the workforce and provide job placement for those who do not own or do not wish to own their own cannabis business.

In all, the program offers valuable business support from the city to a broad group of applicants.  The expedited process, training and workforce support through the program cannot be understated, especially in a fluctuating industry like cannabis.  However, the program alone will not solve every problem in the industry. Even with these incentives from the DCR, the marijuana black market is thriving.  Counterfeits and knockoffs are not only dangerous but also threatening legitimate businesses, businesses that may be starting through the Social Equity Program.  While some issues may be more suited for the state, the program has not been without criticism. Back in March, a scandal broke when it was revealed that about $10 million that was supposed to go to the Social Equity Program in Los Angeles was allegedly instead given to the LAPD sworn overtime.  Although funding for the program still seems to be in flux, the goal has not changed. This same goal is also being implemented in other states where cannabis has been legalized in some capacity.  Diversity in this growing industry is vital and so, social equity programs like the one in L.A. have the responsibility to facilitate inclusion and right the wrongs of the past.