Marijuana has been in the decriminalization process since 1973 with many states over the years passing laws to either authorize the use of marijuana or prohibit it. It is time to stop treating marijuana like a deadly drug, when science and public opinion agree that it is relatively safe for adult recreational and medical use. With recreational and medical marijuana on the verge of nationwide legalization, marijuana growers and dispensaries and grow facilities popping up everywhere.
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With $42 million having been announced in medical marijuana revenue during the first four months of sales in Michigan, the state’s policymakers face a distinct challenge. How do you make sure that a decent slice of that money goes to those who have had their lives turned upside-down by Drug War prohibition over the years? The state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency [MRA] made part of its strategy to this end clear this week when it released details for a sweeping social equity program that will support cannabis entrepreneurs in 19 communities.
“We want to provide an opportunity to get into the business to individuals that might not otherwise have that opportunity,” commented MRA director Andrew Brisbo. “And we’re focusing our resources on those specific communities that have been disproportionately impacted.”
For qualifying applicants, the state has pledged to supply up to a 60 percent discount in application and licensing fees. Individuals will be eligible for more support if they have lived in one of the 19 communities for five years, if they have a marijuana criminal conviction, or if they have been a registered cannabis caregiver for at least two years between 2008 and 2017. Applicants in the program will also have access to industry educational resources, and easier access to governmental agencies that regulate “taxes, environmental laws, business registration, health and human services and occupational safety,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
The jurisdictions where the social equity program will take place are Albion, Benton Harbor, Detroit, East Lansing, Ecorse, Flint, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Inkster, Kalamazoo, Mt. Morris, Mt. Pleasant, Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, Niles, Pontiac, River Rouge, Saginaw, and Ypsilanti. They were selected because they had higher than state average rates of cannabis-related convictions, and for high poverty rates.
Michigan has announced that its goal is to give half of all marijuana business licenses in the 19 communities to people who take part in the social equity program.
“I think the incentive here is that … the rising tide lifts all boats,” said Brisbo. “This will provide an overall benefit to the community, ensure that individuals operating the facilities are from that community, and you’re providing good economic opportunities.”
This is not the only Drug War justice measure that has been discussed this week in the state. On Tuesday, State Senator Jeff Irwin presented a bill that would institute automatic expungement of low level cannabis misdemeanors. The legislation could affect 235,000 Michigan residents who currently have a blemish on their criminal record for an act that is no longer a crime. Irwin argued that the bill would reduce court fees to the state, as well as make expungement more accessible for those with little access to time off for the court dates, or money for the lawyer fees currently required by the case by case expungement petition system.
Michigan is certainly not the only state that is deliberating over how best to make its new cannabis system an equitable one for all residents. Many of the 10 states that have legalized adult use marijuana have instituted social equity programs. In addition to conducting studies on racial and gender disparity in the marijuana industry, Massachusetts followed a similar trajectory to Michigan in identifying geographic areas that were particularly poorly served by cannabis prohibition. In that state, people from 29 cities qualify for educational resources and priority licensing review.