It’s been seven years since Duane Dunn opened his cannabis dispensary in Tacoma and he still remembers the feeling of joy he had when it first opened.
“It was exciting because it was a new industry, it was challenging because it was constantly evolving and changing, and I was happy that I could do something else other than IT,” said Dunn, who had left the IT field after nearly 20 years in the industry.
In 2014, he was able to secure a cannabis license after an intense application process and paying a large sum for the application fee. His business, Emerald Leaves, opened on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue in 2015.
As one of the only Black dispensary owners in Washington, however, Dunn said it hasn’t been an easy process to navigate, nor has it been an easy industry to break into, thanks to inequities in the system.
Helping communities hurt by drugs
State lawmakers have yet again introduced proposed bills aimed at correcting some of those inequities.
Senate Bill 5706 was requested by the governor’s office and is sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle. The bill would create a community reinvestment program and has a companion bill in the house. The Senate had a public hearing in the Senate Labor, Commerce, and Tribal Affairs Committee for the bill on Jan. 19, where many testified in favor.
Saldaña also is sponsoring Senate Bill 5796, which would restructure cannabis revenue appropriations and create transparency. That bill was also heard on Jan. 19.
The bill would rename the Dedicated Marijuana Account to the Dedicated Cannabis Account, and would require 19 percent of cannabis revenue to go into the account. After administrative distribution of funds, any amounts remaining in the account would go into the general fund. Any other remaining amounts must be reappropriated to a newly created community reinvestment account to help create a cannabis equity grant program.
She said that her district in Skyway, as well as in Seattle’s Central District, are historically home to many African-Americans in Washington state.
“These two communities in particular have had a disproportionate impact and been impacted by the war on drugs,” Saldaña said. “How we as the state chose to advance policy and enforcement of drug policies had an impact on individuals and their lives.”
Addressing inequities in licenses to sell
For the last several years, state lawmakers have introduced and passed multiple bills that attempt to fix the inequity when it comes to minority-owned cannabis businesses.
In 2020, The Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force was established under House Bill 2870 to make specific recommendations to the Liquor and Cannabis Board for future cannabis licenses, particularly those people who are considered Social Equity Applicants. The LCB-requested legislation was responsible for advising the legislature on policies to “facilitate social equity in the cannabis industry,” and for submitting a final report to the governor by December of this year.
As outlined in the law, the task force defines the criteria for Social Equity Applicants as “someone who has lived in a disproportionately impacted area; has been convicted of a cannabis offense or has a family member that has been convicted of a cannabis offense.”
Too little, too late?
But while the legislature is attempting to push the state forward in terms of social equity in the cannabis industry, Dunn said the efforts, though good, are a little too late.
“This should have been done at the very beginning of the process when the first retail license was disbursed to the public,” he said. He said that the market is so saturated now that it would be difficult for any new retailers to break into the business.
“The good money years are gone,” Dunn said.
He described the few Black-owned cannabis businesses in the state as “the strongest pieces on the chessboard” because they have all been in the business for several years now.
“We’ve seen the carnival, we’ve been on the rides, we’ve seen everything that could possibly happen in this industry,” he said.
He believes his business could be a model for new applicants to follow. He also hopes to pick up a new license when they become available.
While the Legislature’s measures may not be quite where they should be, Dunn said it is only fair for lawmakers to consider this type of legislation. He said it is important for people of color to get into the industry because it is a “building block” that allows people to diversify.
“It’s giving people the opportunity to build a legacy, create a legacy and to create generational wealth and to be able to be a pioneer in this industry,” Dunn said. “If we don’t take root in this, we’re going to be missing legacies and generations of wealth and opportunities.”
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