Increasingly, state governments and corporations are feeling the moral and ethical responsibility to address the disastrous consequences of the failed War on Drugs. State lawmakers and advocates are aiming to fix a broken criminal justice system while also reinvesting in the poor and minority communities that remain deeply affected.

Six out of the 18 states that have legalized cannabis sales have already taken ample steps to increase diversity in their cannabis programs, and those that have enacted major social equity programs are predicted to grow much bigger than those without. States with legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis since 2016 that have established social equity programs are predicted to have over triple the annual sales of the states without social equity provisions by 2022 ($12.7 billion compared to $4.1 billion).

Innovation at the State Level

A notable step forward is California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control announcement in October of this year to offer a $10 million grant to be shared between ten cities. The benefactors of this grant include Oakland, Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Coachella. The program is intended to help those who have been disproportionately affected by criminalized marjiuana receive aid for local equity applicants and licensees. Illinois has thus far only legalized medical use, but will legalize recreational in January of 2020. This state has developed a similar program with around $12 million being provided to a similar set of recipients.

There are even cities who have stepped up when state governments lag behind. For instance, now in Portland, Oregon business owners and staff with cannabis convictions can apply for decreased license fees. This city also enacted a city-wide sales tax in 2016 to create resources for programs focusing on education and economics in areas where residents were disproportionately targeted by drug laws.

Companies Giving Back

In addition to legislative bodies, corporate entities are working to right previous wrongs, too. On doing great work in this space is Viola, which recently closed a $16 million funding round led by Gotham Green Partners. The company, founded by NBA veteran Al Harrington, aims to promote social equity through expanding minority participation in the industry and by focusing on those most affected by the War on Drugs. According to the ACLU, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. Goals for the cannabis company going into 2020 include exploring other avenues of giving back to communities of color.

We’re going to start giving back a part of our revenue to our foundation, Viola Cares, which will go out to expunging records, educating the youth about the industry, and letting them know that there’s a viable opportunity to be in this industry with very well paying jobs”

– Al Harrington, Viola Brands

A company tackling the issue of hunger is Bloom Farms, a 1-for-1 business that donates a meal to someone in need for every purchase made. Since 2015 Bloom Farms has donated over 1.5 million healthy meals. Part of their core mission is to fight food insecurity. Recognition for their work has grown into notable municipal partnerships, including work with nine food banks such as Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, the SF Marin Food Bank and World Harvest.

 Another company guided by the mission of helping the world around them is Good Chemistry Nurseries. One of the country’s leading providers of cannabis products, Good Chemistry feels that it is their obligation to give back to the community, and support the vulnerable or under-served. The company supports charities like Ray of Hope Cancer Foundation, the homeless-serving Denver Rescue Mission, the LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado, AIDS Walk Colorado and more.

Last Prisoner Project a Leader in Restorative Justice

On the restorative justice side, one of the most important initiatives is the coalition of cannabis industry leaders, executives and artists known as the Last Prisoner Project. Over 40,000 people are in jail over cannabis arrests, serving sentences for something that is no longer a crime. Even worse, arrests for possession continue to outnumber those for all violent crimes combined, disproportionately affecting minorities, especially blacks and latinxs. Through intervention, advocacy and awareness campaigns, the Last Prisoner Project aims to “redress the past and continuing harms of these unjust laws and policies”.

The organization is focused on implementing change based on three pillars: clemency: working to release individuals incarcerated for non-violent marijuana crimes; re-entry” provide training and resources to help those released to rebuild their lives and be supported by their communities; and advocacy: taking advantage of the momentum surrounding criminal justice reform to promote legislation ensuring all cannabis prisoners walk free.

One of the big supporters of this project is Jim Belushi and his company, Belushi’s Farm. In mid-July of this year, Belushi hosted a fundraiser at his home in Brentwood. This one dinner raised almost $30,000 with proceeds helping with clemency petition efforts and to aid in cases that deal with life sentences.

Another company that is partnering with the Last Prisoner Project is Harvest Health and Recreation. The announcement came in late September and marks the creation of the first proprietary program from a large cannabis company. The program will focus on job creation for people who have been affected by the criminalization of cannabis. This “Prison to Prosperity” program will focus its efforts on the reintegration of individuals affected by the War on Drugs back into society through workshop training programs. Harvest will then offer employment opportunities nationwide. Other companies that have partnered with the Last Prisoner Project include Cannacraft, Ocean Grown Extracts, Hoban Law Group, Sovereignty, Harborship, Press Here, C3 Management and Kikoko.

As observed above, the legalization of cannabis has a bright future in the U.S., and with it more opportunity for those who have suffered under the War on Drugs in the past. An essential part of the industry’s future includes setting up systems, both legal and corporate, to account for the social and financial consequences from earlier, misguided legislative decisions. This starts at a governmental level with social equity programs and expands to the private sector with the empowerment of restorative justice and philanthropic endeavors. What we’re now observing is social justice momentum across industry and legislation like we’ve never seen: more companies putting in place these programs means more publicity, which in turn attracts even bigger companies and more effective solutions.