San Diego wants to bring social justice to the cannabis industry


San Diego County Administration Building / photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

When California legalized adult cannabis in 2016, many supporters admitted that the war on drugs had disproportionately affected colored communities across the state. It was actually one of the selling points of Proposition 64, which went into effect more than a year later.

Convinced that the electoral initiative did not go far enough, social justice programs have emerged across the state in recent years to grant special privileges to black, brown and low-income people who have been arrested and imprisoned -related crimes and thus excluded from participating in the new industry.

A survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily in 2017 found that about 80 percent cannabis company founders and owners at the time were white.

Neither the city nor the county of San Diego have a social justice program on the books and officials for both say they are working to create one. According to their own information, they are late for the game.

But that’s not necessarily bad when you consider that other communities in California have tried to correct the injustices they previously identified. In some places, social justice programs have been portrayed as harmful to the same people they are supposed to be helping.

Prop. 64 allowed local governments to remain in control when legalization went into effect. To date, adult cannabis sales are legal in the city of San Diego and others such as Vista and La Mesa, but the sale, distribution, manufacture, and cultivation continue forbidden in the parish-free parts of the district.

That should change in October, when the district’s supervisory board is expected to have one statewide cannabis regulation which got the green light 4: 1 last January. How this should look in practice is still being worked out, but it is expected that the regulation will provide for a social justice system.

Officials have invited the San Diego Circle cannabis advocacy group to help develop a statewide cannabis social equity program. The group’s moderator, Appeals Court attorney Andrea St. Julian, said the ordinance should make repairing the damage caused by the war on drugs the main topic of a discussion that traditionally begins with land use regulations.

“When you start formulating cannabis ordinances and regulations, you really need to start with social justice concerns,” said St. Julian. “And then you have to consider the concerns of cannabis companies, the concerns of cannabis users, and of course the concerns and needs of the community as a whole. Hence, a cannabis regulation is really important to redirecting government officials and how they feel about cannabis production.

Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, appears at a press conference discussing the city’s proposed regulation to set up the Police Practices Commission in June. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The makeup of these programs varies from location to location, but typically they include expedited licenses, tax breaks, or other incentives for businesses run by colored people, especially those who might have been criminalized because of previous cannabis deals when things were less legal. Local governments have also introduced internship, professional training, and mentoring programs to help ensure social justice in the cannabis industry.

Entire communities, such as towns in Humboldt County, are mostly made up of breeders and vendors who operated in what is sometimes referred to as the “traditional market” – the illegal or unlicensed market that existed before legalization and continues to this day. These communities have received additional Social justice promotion from the state to offset the exorbitant cost of running a legal cannabis business in California.

The distribution of this money, like legalization itself, amounts to an admission by the state that the war on drugs was wrong in many ways. These programs have tangible monetary benefits, yes, but the symbolic meaning is also important to people who have been targeted by the government for trading in goods they believe should always have been legal. The current path of legalization suggests that they may have been right all along.

In theory, San Diego County is an ideal place for social justice programs as the region is home to two communities that could directly benefit from it – a significant population of traditional pre-law market growers and sellers, as well as colored communities in East County and South Bay.

Emily Weir, assistant public order director for district overseer Nathan Fletcher, said officials plan to use an outside expert to help create the district’s social justice program, led by the district’s Justice and Racial Justice bureau.

Weir also said the county has made a request for a quote for services related to the social justice program and expects the counselor to be selected soon. The county will also shortly be reviewing five existing pharmacies in the unincorporated areas to ensure they are included in future mentoring and internship opportunities run with the county’s support, she said.

Although the inclusion of social justice programs was deemed essential by many cannabis industry stakeholders as well as those who shape industry policies, they have not always been successful in their implementation.

In Los Angeles, The rollout of the city’s social justice program has been slow and engulfed in bureaucracyto hurt the very people she was supposed to help. The lack of adequate staffing and funding brings the so-called program to a standstill and hinders the ability of entrepreneurs to run their businesses effectively.

Others accuse the program of having people of color and people with arrest files in Targets for Predatory Investors with more flush access to capital so they can keep playing the system and essentially cutting the line. In these cases, only one applicant in the company needs to meet the social justice criteria and the entire company qualifies. As a result, programs can inadvertently channel resources to people and businesses who would otherwise not meet these standards.

Another common criticism of stock programs is that many are not doing enough to meet the high licensing costs required to become a legal cannabis company, which is one of the greatest barriers to entry in the cannabis industry, let alone those affected by the war against the drugs. Mentoring and internship programs are helpful, but they don’t provide immediate capital. Without that, many budding cannabis entrepreneurs would not have the funding to start their own businesses.

Despite being one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, San Diego is in an unusual position to implement a cannabis program later than other large populations in California.

“The county has the advantage of being late for the game,” said Weir. “We can learn from other jurisdictions that have taken a step-by-step approach to cannabis policy that did not exist for many of the entities that previously adopted cannabis policy. We can also design a much broader and more effective program if we prioritize social justice from the start of the regulation development program. “

Fletcher, the chairman of the board of directors, has identified racial justice and equity as a priority, and cannabis policy in particular was part of his “Framework for the Future”.

The district’s Justice and Racial Justice Bureau has also communicated with the city of San Diego, which is also trying to implement an equity program, despite the fact that cannabis has been legal to sell, manufacture, and grow in the city since January 2018.

Sammi Ma, the project manager for the city’s cannabis division, said a lengthy bureaucratic process delayed the city’s creation of an equity program, despite legalizing the sale, manufacture and cultivation of cannabis years ago.

“Senate Bill 1294 created the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018,” she said. “In the spring of 2019, just a year later, the State Department of Cannabis Control (formerly the Bureau of Cannabis Control) launched the Social Justice Grant to support local jurisdictions. At that time, the Cannabis Business Division (CBD) development services department was not yet established. After the CBD was founded in November 2020, it primarily took care of the state participation allowance, which was granted four months later in March. “

Ma added that the program has not yet been developed, but that the city is conducting an equity assessment that “provides a data-driven analysis of the historical impact of the criminalization of cannabis in the city, assesses potential opportunities and constraints in the current legal framework, and ultimately makes policy recommendations to promote equity and diversity in the city to ensure a regulated cannabis industry in the emerging city of San Diego. “

At the same time, the county says it is still doing its homework and consulting with other jurisdictions including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the city of San Diego to find out what worked and what didn’t in their own programs. One of the realizations, Weir said, is that a social justice program needs to be up and running before commercial licenses are issued and the larger regulation goes into effect.

“We are currently on the right track to do just that,” she said.

Industry watchdogs like St. Julian are now watching.

“It’s too early to say if the county is on the right track,” she said. She is encouraged by the statements made by the district so far, but concerned that none of the concrete measures have been determined. St. Julian said she hoped the “county’s actions are in line with her rhetoric.”


Would you like to learn more about this topic? Voice of San Diego is hosting a panel discussion on September 28th on the challenges and pathways involved in running a social justice program in the San Diego cannabis industry.

Jackie Bryant will moderate. The panelists are Anthony and Loriel Alegrete, the founders of 40 Tons; Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, Nathan Fletcher; Attorney Andrea St. Julian; and Violeta Wyrick, Chief Equity and External Affairs Officer at Catalyst Cannabis Co.