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Colorado got the ball rolling for legal cannabis across the country, but this state has lagged behind others in adopting social justice measures to repair the damage caused by the war on drugs. As a black man who helped usher in Amendment 64 and recreational marijuana, Art Way is feeling the pressure.
Way, a former Denver police accountability activist, campaigned for cannabis reform in 2011 when he joined the Denver chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance. He led this group until 2019 when the chapter closed. During that time, the Denver Data Protection Agency helped push the legalization of recreational activities, then some of the laws that followed the passage of Amendment 64, including the laws that further decriminalized drug possession and created accelerated licenses to marijuana businesses to protect the people Promote diversity in the pot industry. But Way, now a cannabis management consultant, still wants Colorado’s cannabis space to become a fairer landscape, and continues to work toward that goal.
Westword: How important was social justice and reversing the harm caused by the drug war in the early stages of legalizing cannabis for recreational use?
Art Way: I totally smelled it. If there was anyone who could have accomplished this early in the process, it was probably me and the Drug Policy Alliance. But for the people who stood behind legalizing social and criminal justice in Colorado and Washington, DC, it just wasn’t on our mind at the time. I was more concerned that after legalization, Colorado would arrest 10,000 people under the age of 21, so we took over minors [charge] and distraction programs for young people. We had to deal with the problem of women who used marijuana, many of whom were [medical marijuana] Patients engaged in child protection investigations. There were many other things we were worried about at the time, and I wish I had thought more about equity back in 2012 or 2013, and maybe we could have led the way here in Colorado. But it wasn’t until 2015 that it really became an issue here.
Does this steer your current work on diversity-driven licensing practices in Colorado’s cannabis industry?
Yes, because it’s embarrassing. As someone who advocates for social justice, the people you really want to help are excluded from the industry. Legalization can actually exacerbate structural inequality, especially in states like Colorado, Oregon, or Washington, where the benefits of criminal justice haven’t been as great as Texas or Louisiana. We did it to help people out from a criminal justice standpoint, but Colorado had already decriminalized marijuana, and it was a minor offense for possession less than 2 ounces here. But then we realized that we had just put in place a system that would make a small group of white people rich, and structurally, this has the capacity to make the situation even worse for the community we were trying to serve. The work I’ve done over the past four or five years has tried to make up for this early mistake.
What do you think got the ball rolling for some of these Colorado cannabis social justice efforts in the past two or three years?
The narrative has changed across the country. California has really changed that, and it’s not about whether we should legalize, but how we should legalize. The state accelerator program here lasted two or three years – it didn’t run until around 2018, and there is still a lot of work going on behind the scenes. Michelle Alexander really got it off the ground when she commented on making the whites richer, while people who suffered from the ban are now banned from this industry. So there has just been this ideological shift, and now you see it at the federal level, where justice is part of the conversation too. Now all we have to do is see that the industry is really investing in stocks and see how they benefit.
Art Way has been a drug policy advisor for nearly a decade, working primarily with Colorado cannabis rulers.
Courtesy Art Way
When does social justice in cannabis become less of a government-mandated problem and more of a localized problem or an industry problem?
It’s kind of a trilogy. You have the industry on one side, you have state and city regulators on the other, and on the third side you have the people trying to get into the industry. All three parts need to work together. The state has created a framework for local jurisdictions to get involved in, and there are people trying to get into this industry. So I think the final piece is the industry opening up to see that equity is a good thing for business plans that are evolving, but that requires collaboration, vision and framework. We have two and now all we need is industry collaboration. Whenever you’re trying to create fair opportunities in a particular industry or company, you need that company or industry to play ball.
Many cannabis industry players have stated that they support social justice, but when new and coveted business licenses for the supply and entertainment of cannabis become available in the Denver area, do you think they will support all of that support?
I think licensing preferences for deliveries and vans to social justice claimants are a good place to start, and you can do the same for hospitality. What the preference is is up to the locals, but just that Denver is considering limited licenses for social justice applicants is a good move. With the accelerator program, we just need a panel of big players in the industry to lead the indictment there, to show that it can be done and that it is not detrimental to a business plan, whether it is accelerator cultivation, extraction facilities or pharmacies. It’s not going to change overnight, but if we can get four or five new owners to join some of these new social justice opportunities, we’ll increase diversity within the industry by at least 50 percent there alone. We know we won’t change things overnight, but the goal is to open the door, lower barriers to entry, and do it at a lower cost.
Is the licensing sufficient? In what other areas would these new cannabis companies be at risk after receiving a social equity license?
They need help paying legal fees. I think the governor’s office is slowly starting a scholarship program right now and I think money should go towards legal fees. These applicants are at a disadvantage in negotiations, so that they need legal assistance there. Regulatory compliance assistance and basic business plan training are also needed. It is not enough to open the door to licensing options. We also need to make sure that people are on the right track and have a little leverage when negotiating with long-term industry representatives. In essence, we need to make sure that people are not being taken advantage of.
What more can Colorado do in 2021 to promote diversity and social justice in the cannabis landscape?
I think the state has to be nimble enough to see what works and what doesn’t and adapt quickly. Some of these are regulated by law, but some of these things can be done within the state’s marijuana enforcement department. They claim sustainability and equity are their cornerstones for the future. So we need to see what works for them and try to remedy the situation. We also need to figure out how we can benefit the current industry in the process: How do we provide this carrot for those who are already established in the industry to see justice as a good thing? This will boil down to convincing the industry to look into social equity firms, sign contracts, and join the accelerator program.
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.