State lawmakers passed a bill last week to bring a social equity program to Washington’s cannabis industry, eight years after voters approved a ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana. The measure, House Bill 2870 (HB 2870), now awaits action from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

If Inslee signs HB 2870, a task force would be created to form the state’s Marijuana Social Equity Program. The new program would allow regulators with the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to award canceled, revoked, and forfeited licenses for cannabis businesses to members of communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.

The bill was passed on March 9 in the Washington Senate by a vote of 28 to 20. The state House of Representatives voted 57 to 40 to approve the measure as amended by the Senate the following day. The House originally passed an earlier version of the bill on February 16.

Legalization Initiative Lacked Social Equity Provisions

Rick Garza, the director of the LCB, said the bill is designed to address social equity issues that were not addressed by the initiative passed by voters in 2012.

“Initiative 502 missed an opportunity to incorporate a focus on social equity,” Garza said last month as HB 2870 made its way through the legislature. “The history of cannabis prohibition shows abundant evidence there was disproportionate harm in communities of color, and that those harmful effects remain with us today.”

The bill was sponsored in the House by Democratic Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who had originally drafted a bill that would have provided minority-owned cannabis businesses with low-interest loans. But provisions that would have also allowed out-of-state investment were strongly opposed by many who feared the move would lead to corporate ownership of Washington’s cannabis industry and the end of small, independent businesses.

“I had a chance to meet with some proponents and opponents a little more … and really came to understand that this is beyond the issue of licenses,” Pettigrew said. “This is potentially a different distribution of wealth as we move forward in this industry.”

Pettigrew then drafted HB 2870 with the help of stakeholders including Paula Sardinas of the Commission on African American Affairs. She said that she was afraid that the bill would be amended by the legislature and rendered ineffective. One proposed amendment would have replaced the social equity program with funding for a group to study the issue instead.

“We don’t need any more studies,” Sardinas said.

‘Toxic Culture’ Among Regulators

But some social equity advocates are leery of the plan for the program to be administered by the LCB. An independent review of the agency released in December determined that it acted more like law enforcement than a regulatory body and was in need of a “culture change.” 

“There’s a consequence to the toxic culture,” said Aaron Barfield of the activist group Black Excellence in Cannabis. “And African Americans are the victims.”

Sardinas said that HB 2870 is a good start toward social equity and that reforming the LCB should be the next order of business.

“People are concerned that the LCB will hand them a license with the right hand and claw it back with the left,” Sardinas said.

Pettigrew’s bill has been sent to Inslee for his consideration. If he signs the measure, the first licenses granted under the new social equity program could be issued by December 1.

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