State considers social equity licenses for people impacted by 'war on drugs' to get cannabis shop licenses

The Washington State Liquor Cannabis Board is considering a point system that would give people convicted of a drug-related crime and did prison time - preferential treatment when applying for retail cannabis license.

If adopted, the City of Seattle will adopt the same rules and set aside $1 million dollars in grant money to help them get started.

The potential rule for the state and ordinance for the city are part of an effort to create a social equity license for people who were adversely affected by the war on drugs.

"We recognize the disproportionality of the war on drugs on the black community," said Brianna Thomas, Labor Relations Policy Advisor to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell.

Back in the early days of the war on drugs, the mere possession of a marijuana cigarette could land someone in jail or prison for months, if not years.

Times have changed.

In 2020, state lawmakers created the Washington State Legislative Task Force on Social Equity in Cannabis. Its purpose was to make recommendations to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board on the issuance of retail cannabis licenses, of which there are a limited number.

One of the recommendations was to give preferential treatment to someone who was arrested, convicted and punished for a drug related crime who may now want to make money legally selling marijuana.

"Our intent is to be able to reach applicants that were disproportionally harmed by the war on drugs," said Brian Smith, Director of Communications for the Liquor Cannabis Board.

He says there are 40 licenses the LCB is holding for social equity purposes.

There are several criteria an applicant needs including living in an area that was disproportionally harmed for decades by the war of drugs.  Smith says the University of Washington is currently developing a map of where those areas in the state are located.

Another criteria in the proposed rule says "The social equity applicant or a family member of the applicant has been arrested or convicted of a cannabis offense."

Applicants will be scored on a point system and the way the rule is written, the harsher the punishment for a conviction, the better the odds of getting a license.

"You get points for as little as just being arrested for let’s say a marijuana conviction, but you get additional points if you served time jail or prison" says Smith.

If a person was fined for a cannabis offense, it’s 10 points. If they served probation, it’s 20 points.  If the sentence was to home detention, its 40 points. If the person served time in jail or prison, it’s 80 points - the high point potential of another any other category criteria category.

The applicant or someone related to the applicant convicted of any kind of drug offense including trafficking can receive an additional 5 points.

The higher the point total, the better chances of getting a social equity license says Smith.

"When compared to an individual who hasn’t had a drug conviction, the person who did serve time in jail would be given consideration" says Smith.

"If it’s non-violent, and you’ve proven your debt to society, and you want to make it up, then let’s have at it," said Adan Espino Jr., Executive Director of the Craft Cannabis Coalition, an industry lobbyist.

The cannabis industry is listed as a stakeholder in the rule making process.

"We should be helping those who want to turn their life around and say ‘hey I want to do this legitimately’" he said.

Two cannabis chain store owners FOX 13 spoke with were not comfortable with the idea.

Both did not want their names fearing they would be labeled against the social equity licensing. Both said they support the idea of minority ownership.

"This will provide licenses to people who aren't equipped to run a business like this," said one owner.

The other said, "this is just a political make good."

Seattle Council Member Teresa Mosqueda said it was embarrassing for the state to be one of the first to legalize marijuana and not the social equity licenses that other states do.

"It’s an embarrassment that we are so far behind, and we need to step up," she said during a council committee meeting on proposed social equity legislation for the city.

Seattle is considering three pieces of legislation including one that would adopt the licensing rules that only the LCB can issue.

"They could not stand in the way of the criteria that the state has established for issuing those licenses," said Smith.

Mosqueda says it’s all about sharing the wealth generated when the state legalized marijuana in 2012.

"That wealth can be shared with the folks that were disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs and to make up for that lost time we've had over the last 10 years when that equity approach wasn't applied in the first go around," she said.

The LCB will be holding a public hearing on the proposed social equity licensing rules on Sept. 14.

Mosqueda’s Finance Committee which she chairs will consider voting on Seattle’s proposed ordinances next week.