Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) has introduced a bill that aims to create more opportunities and support for people who have been negatively impacted by the prohibition of cannabis. The bill, LD1517, would establish a social equity program that would provide grants, mentoring, and fee waivers for individuals who want to enter the legal cannabis industry. The bill would also remove the current restriction that prevents people with prior drug convictions from obtaining a cannabis license.
The Impact of the War on Drugs
The bill is motivated by the recognition that the War on Drugs, which began in the 1970s, has disproportionately harmed people of color and low-income communities. According to a 2020 study by the ACLU, Black people in Maine were four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in 2018. In York County, they were 12 times more likely. These arrests and convictions have created barriers to employment, education, housing, and voting rights for many people.
“Opportunities to mitigate that harm are long overdue,” Talbot Ross said in her written testimony. “The barriers to economic success in the cannabis industry are stacked highest against people of color.”
The bill would define eligible individuals for the social equity program as those who have been incarcerated for a cannabis-related offense, who are members of a historically disinvested community, or who have at least four years of experience in the medical cannabis industry and made less than $300,000 in the previous year.
The Benefits of the Social Equity Program
The bill would create a Social Equity Development Fund, which would receive $2 million from the state and additional funding from private, philanthropic, and nonprofit sources. The fund would provide seed grants for new cannabis businesses owned by eligible individuals. The bill would also create three new positions to assist these entrepreneurs: a business navigator, an ombudsperson, and a workforce navigator. These positions would offer outreach, education, technical assistance, licensing guidance, and apprenticeship opportunities.
The bill would also establish a Social Equity Cannabis Initiative within the Office of Cannabis Policy, which would provide mentoring and networking for eligible individuals. The initiative would also waive the license and renewal fees for these individuals, which can range from $250 to $15,000 depending on the type and size of the business.
The bill would also remove the current five-year “look back” period that disqualifies people with a drug conviction from becoming licensed. The bill would allow people with prior drug convictions to apply for a cannabis license, unless their conviction involved violence, trafficking, or minors.
The Opposition to the Bill
The bill has faced some opposition from those who argue that it conflicts with the principles of a free market economy and that it would create unfair advantages for some groups over others. Some also expressed concern that the bill would encourage more cannabis use and addiction, especially among young people.
Rep. David Boyer (R-Poland), a member of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which held a public hearing on the bill last week, asked Amy McFarland, a medical cannabis farmer and co-director of Liberate Maine Cannabis, who testified against the bill, if she agrees that the war on drugs disproportionately affected people of color in Maine and nationally.
McFarland said she does not agree with that statement and that she believes that everyone has equal opportunities in the cannabis industry. She said that the bill would create a “welfare system” for cannabis and that it would be unfair to the existing businesses that have invested their own money and time.
The bill is still pending in the committee and has not yet been scheduled for a vote. If passed, it would join other states that have implemented or proposed similar social equity programs for cannabis, such as Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.