It’s difficult to know just where to begin with social equity. At best, it’s safe to say most Americans are only just familiarizing themselves with the idea. Most of the online traffic surrounding the subject is directed at one-off hits from local news stations giving brief highlights of government initiatives. Some institutional publications have done a profile or two. The coverage is there but it’s pushed out at a trickle.
The people who have skin in the game, that bought property only to have to sit on it and pay tens of thousands in rent in the meantime, have a voice as well. They’re all-in on a program that’s still being worked out. Their voice is not uniform, and therefore not easy to digest in two minutes or less. As director of ONE Cannabis’ SEED (Social Equity and Economic Empowerment) Program, I’ve worked with over a hundred social equity applicants closely and done my best to become part of their world. Amidst this immersion, three common denominators stand out as key factors in every social equity market.
Social Equity Licensing
There’s no cannabis industry without licenses. The extremely-competitive application process is the only avenue to opening a legal dispensary. While more and more areas are reserving licenses for social equity applicants, the candidate pools are still astronomical and the requirements for applying are open ended enough to bring out every hopeful entrepreneur in the surrounding area.
Social equity applicants aren’t qualified entirely by ability—in many places, living in a certain area will get you into what’s essentially a lottery system. Impartial? Yes. A viable system for creating a successful program? Perhaps not.
Some of the licenses allow for partnerships and equity shares, which is ideally a way for applicants to receive backing from more established entities. Predatory practices have made most applicants wary of outside help, however, and many are striking out on their own. The license is the name of the game.
Social Equity Employment
The idea of social equity doesn’t end at the license holder, who is typically one person. That’s a narrow garden to plant seeds in. Time and time again, social equity applicants point to one end goal as a motivator—generational wealth. Working hard for the foreseeable future to give their kids and grand kids a better chance at succeeding.
There are typically employment components of applications as well—not only do these businesses empower people to participate in the statistically-white payoff of cannabis, but they also encourage those business owners to empower others in their community with stable employment options. Many of these community members have to keep both eyes on the end of the month and go to extra lengths to make sure they can mail the check that keeps the lights on. This is a common enough situation for social equity programs to try and target on a scale they otherwise would struggle to combat.
Employment, empowerment, and capital flow are all components of social equity’s overarching goal—community betterment. There is no homogeneous voice or circumstance behind the initiatives, but most of them are pointed toward the same finish line. It’s an elusive objective.
The true benchmark we should hold these programs too is the affect they have on the area around them. If a Los Angeles license holder, who qualified as a South Central resident, opens a store in Santa Monica, then the community the city sought to improve is none the better for it. How to best manage this aspect of social equity is highly debated and has kept some states from legalizing cannabis altogether.
There are almost always some attempts to include a community betterment component, however. There are many qualified advocates of the program who aren’t applying for a license, but are incredibly active in fighting for assurances that will impact a greater population. Whether that’s a percentage of profits donated to local charities or time devoted to impactful projects is entirely up for debate, but the idea that entire communities should be made better for these programs is always a part of the conversation.
Many people are working to make social equity succeed, not just happen. Governments, private companies, impact investors, and citizens are all participating, which isn’t something you typically hear about in social movements. It’s an exciting time to be paying attention, especially as social equity programs grow and the country moves toward a more refined system.