State unveils program for budding weed industry in areas hit hard by criminalization

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The regulatory body for Michigan’s newly legal marijuana industry wants to give a leg up to prospective entrepreneurs in 19 communities deemed to have been disproportionately impacted by decades of criminalization. 

The state Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) on Thursday announced a new “Social Equity Program” that aims to offer reduced fees and technical and professional assistance to those seeking to start cannabis businesses in the designated communities. The state will be doing educational outreach on the new program for the next few months and then begin taking applications on Nov. 1. 

On Jefferson Avenue, closely approaching downtown Detroit. | iStockphoto

Those selected for the program can get up to 60% off the initial fees charged by the state to start a cannabis business, plus discounts on renewal fees. The state will also make available representatives from other agencies that play a role in the marijuana industry. 

The communities included are: Albion; Benton Harbor; Detroit; East Lansing; Ecorse; Flint; Hamtramck; Highland Park; Inkster; Kalamazoo; Mt. Morris; Mt. Pleasant; Muskegon; Muskegon Heights; Niles; Pontiac; River Rouge; Saginaw; and Ypsilanti.

Last November, about 56% of Michigan voters backed Proposal 1, a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. Since that time, state and local governments have been sorting out a regulatory scheme, while at the same time implementing regulations for medical marijuana businesses. 

A measure was introduced earlier this week in the state Senate to wipe the convictions of about 235,000 people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana crimes. 

Irwin bill would clear marijuana-related crimes from records

Over the last several months, the MRA convened a variety of stakeholders from the burgeoning marijuana industry and sought to determine criteria for identifying those most impacted by the decades-long war on drugs, which largely has targeted poor people and communities of color. 

Andrew Brisbo

“A lot of work has gone into the development of this program and we are proud of the results,” MRA Executive Director Andrew Brisbo said in a statement. “I believe that our Social Equity Program will lead the nation in accomplishing the social equity objectives that Michigan voters assigned us last fall when they passed the adult-use marijuana proposal.”

The MRA says it picked the 19 communities based on levels of poverty and marijuana-related convictions. Counties in which the total number of marijuana-related convictions exceeded the average marijuana-related conviction rate for the state were selected, according to a news statement from the MRA. From that group, counties were selected in which 30% or more of the population live below the federal poverty level, the agency said.

In an email to the Advance, MRA spokesman David Harns said that in order to qualify for the Social Equity Program an applicant must have been a resident of one of the selected communities for the past five years. That ensures that local residents have the greatest access to the program, as opposed to someone targeting those communities because of the resources on offer. 

Harns added that in order for a person to qualify for the program, a “marijuana establishment must be located in their disproportionately impacted community. Social equity representatives will confirm eligibility for participation in this program through acceptance of several forms of documentation.”

New state rules smooth the road for recreational pot businesses

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) earlier this year called the emerging trend of marijuana legalization a “racial justice issue,” given the possibility of exclusion from the new business opportunities to those who have been most impacted. 

The ACLU of Michigan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon. 

Legal cannabis in the U.S. is expected to be a $23 billion industry by 2022, according to a 2018 report.  

As such, the concept of social equity in the increasingly legal marijuana industry isn’t entirely new. Los Angeles, for instance, has a relatively robust social equity program run by its city government. 

Roberta King

Roberta King, the owner and founder of Canna Communications, a Muskegon-based cannabis consulting firm, was one of the people on the MRA roundtables that helped develop the recommendations. 

King applauded the MRA for taking an equity-focused lens as it seeks to grow Michigan’s cannabis industry. But she also notes that not everyone wants to own their own business, so she said she’s hopeful the program can help to spur economic mobility in communities around the state.

“So I really think that one of the things social equity-wise that’s really important is jobs. And good-paying jobs,” King said in a phone interview on Thursday. 

“I’ve been sort of scanning job postings for marijuana jobs and there’s a lot of opportunities out there, so I think the real deal is with employment,” King said, “and long-term employment and good jobs that pay a living wage and above and have benefits, as well.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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