As the cannabis industry booms, it’s imperative that we evaluate the current state of social equity in cannabis. The industry is thriving, but calling it “successful” from an economic diversity perspective may not be accurate. 

While many states have put forth their own social equity programs for cannabis, to date the results have been sub-par. States like Illinois are breaking the pattern, however, and many others are following suit. Before we start covering what programs currently exist and what we have to look forward to, let’s explain social equity as it pertains to the cannabis industry.

What Is Social Equity in Cannabis?

Social equity refers to the belief that every member of society deserves the same fair and equitable treatment by policy. This means everyone has the same degree of access to public policies, services, and opportunities.

Marijuana prohibition

Let’s look at this through the lens of the cannabis industry. Unfortunately, it is plagued with a history where minorities and economically disadvantaged communities have been negatively disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. We aren’t just talking about lives ruined, we are talking about generations of families that have been torn apart.

Communities of color were harmed and damaged by these policies for years, and the catastrophic effects continue to be felt today by those with cannabis charges on their records, or even those still incarcerated by laws that no longer exist today.

Because these groups were disproportionately affected by prohibitionist laws, it’s important for society to repair the harm they have caused.


The first, and most important, step to take is expunging misdemeanor cannabis charges for the millions of individuals who are still carrying them through their lives today. These charges are preventing people from reaching their potential, despite the changing landscape of cannabis legalization.

Second, society needs to reassess those who are incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis offenses, release them from our jails and prisons, and work toward expunging their records.

The third step is to incorporate and encourage adversely impacted individuals to participate in the burgeoning cannabis industry so that they too can reap the benefits of legalization. This can be accomplished through industry and state programs such as incubators and policy that lowers their barrier to entry.

Lastly, the businesses that are participating in the industry need to be conscious of their impact. These businesses need to have an active role in helping disenfranchised communities through social programs, outreach and financial support.

What Programs Currently Exist?

As it currently stands, not every state makes a serious effort towards social equity in cannabis. Some states have provisions to promote social equity for disparaged groups, but these states still have always to go toward progressing social equity in cannabis. A few of the states that have put forth social equity policy and programs include: California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

California, the first state to legalize medical cannabis, currently has an established program to help local governments with equity ordinances to provide loans, grants, and technical support to entrepreneurs and employers.

California is aware that change needs to occur, and prominent cities such as LA and SF are beginning to implement stronger social equity programs. The City of Oakland has implemented software to automatically expunge thousands of misdemeanor cannabis records and now the rest of the state of California is looking to follow suit.

oakland california
Oakland, California

Other states are trying to do their part with cannabis social equity. Pennsylvania has a provision in their medical cannabis licensing process that 10% of available points on the license application are awarded for the applicants plans to address diversity and equity in management, contracting, and employee opportunities.

Michigan may offer reduced application and licensing fees for those who have cannabis convictions on their records.

Massachusetts has been developing a robust social equity program. Their social equity program is for those who live in an area disproportionately affected in the last 10 years, or those convicted of a cannabis crime or related to someone convicted of cannabis crimes. Eligible members are able to enjoy benefits such as reduced barriers to entry into the commercial cannabis industry, professional training, technical services, mentoring, and more.

Illinois has been at the forefront of states prioritizing social equity by incorporating this important issue into the adult use legalizing bill. The state offers additional points on license applications for qualified social equity applicants. Seeking to right previous wrongs, they also expunge low-level drug offenses from those with convictions.

Illinois has also created the social equity loan fund. When cannabis was first legalized in the state, early applicants paid hefty fees to apply. These fees support the fund, which does a number of things, including:
• 50% fee waivers for new applicants
• Low interest loans to businesses in areas affected by the war on drugs
• Grants for businesses and other programs in areas affected by the war on drugs
• Funds the Community College Pilot Program
• Implement the R3 Program (Restore, Reinvest, and Renew)

Organizations Dedicated To Improving Social Equity

There are organizations throughout the industry with the sole responsibility of leveling the playing field.

The Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) is a non-profit focused on serving the specific needs of minority cannabis industry participants. They seek to create equal access for cannabis businesses, while promoting equity in underprivileged communities most affected by the war on cannabis. The MCBA works with state representatives to actively change social equity policy, and provides resources to governments and citizens to encourage and design better policy.

Another organization is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force (DEI Task Force) of the Cannabis Trade Federation. This task force is a collection of diverse and experienced individuals dedicated to improving the landscape of the cannabis industry. Their core values are in the name: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their goal is to create a social equity policy that becomes industry wide, and adopted by the full Cannabis Trade Federation board. Once this happens, all members of the CTF will have to agree to this policy. Furthermore, the DEI Task Force is working to create benchmarks, so they can track progress of their efforts going forward.

A third organization worth highlighting is the Supernova Women. This is an Oakland, California based organization for women of color in the cannabis industry. The Supernova Women focus primarily on three objectives:

• Education for communities of color about the cannabis industry
• Advocacy at local, state, and national level to make it easier for people of color to enter, work, and operate in the cannabis space
• Providing networking opportunities for women of color to meet one another, and further the industry together

These programs and organizations are crucial to supporting social equity within the cannabis industry.

social equity in cannabis

Social Equity In Cannabis Going Forward

As the cannabis industry progresses, we can expect to see an elevated emphasis on social equity. It is the responsibility of those participating in the cannabis industry to be conscious of their impact on legalization.  If people of influence remain cognizant of their social responsibility through policy and best business practices, there is the potential for the industry to become something everyone can be proud of.