Maryland’s Office Of Social Equity Speaks On Its Mission To Open Cannabis Industry To Diverse Entrepreneurs

Cannabis is a growing industry nationwide. However, as the venture has been predominantly white, people of color have had to combat discrimination, the unjust history between people of color using and distributing weed, and the heavy criminalization that stemmed from it. 

However, Maryland’s Office of Social Equity seeks to do its part in remedying the past by supporting diverse cannabis brand owners for the future. Established out of the Cannabis Reform Act in 2023, the independent government agency’s Executive Director, Audrey Johnson, spoke to BLACK ENTERPRISE to elaborate on the hopes for the program and why all applicable people should utilize its wide-ranging services.  

For those interested in cannabis’ potential but lack the capital and means to explore their entrepreneurial ambitions, the Office of Social Equity seeks to level that playing field. 

Johnson spoke about why the state established this agency, touching on the overdue desire to uplift certain demographics in this field.

“We wanted to ensure the promotion of systemic economic opportunity and equity in Maryland and the cannabis market. The prioritization was to rectify harm and the economic imbalances that exist in this industry,” Johnson told BE. “Creating this programming and outreach will help drive awareness and participation from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by [the] criminalization of marijuana. Through this, we are aiming for a positive impact.”

The eligibility criteria for participation in this pioneering program are designed to precisely identify and address individuals affected in diverse ways. Factors such as zip code affiliation, school attendance, and the proportion of Pell Grant recipients at higher education institutions are considered. Johnson is optimistic that the aid provided will be especially advantageous for marginalized people in this context.

The program will also offer legal services and has “lessened or aided in certain fees, offer reimbursement funding to applicants, and even costs associated with preparing the application,” she offered.

Johnson also notes the dangers that still lurk in the cannabis industry, including exploitative companies that take advantage of unknowing business owners.

“It’s a very challenging process because it’s only legalized on a state-by-state basis,” she explained. “So when you think about banking, how to approach investors and partnerships, because of the huge economic opportunity, there are also a lot of predatory practices. So, in our sessions, we make sure to highlight those so people are not taken advantage of. “

Of the policies and programming, The OSE prides itself on being the inaugural body to solely cater to social equity applicants in its pooling. Johnson also shares that this initial step is a game-changer for achieving equity in the cannabis space. 

Johnson pointed out, “One of the most exciting aspects of our initiative is the development of this sole cannabis licensing round on social equity applicants. We’re the first to do that in all the licensing categories. We see it as really leveling the playing field for marginalized entrepreneurs. We anticipate by diversifying our pool that, we will have a positive impact in terms of the economic empowerment that is happening, but also in reducing some of the disparities.”

According to the director, the root of these disparities lies in the financial resources. 

As Johnson noted, “It goes down to capital. If you don’t have a level of wealth or cash available, it’s really challenging to get started. It’s hard enough when you are starting a bakery and as minorities to get access to capital; it’s even harder with this. From a federal perspective, it’s still illegal, so a lot of banks are not available to give loans. Those traditional ways of acquiring funding don’t apply, which in itself blocks out whole communities.”

However, Johnson hopes to rectify this problem by establishing a supportive relationship with these entrepreneurs as they build their businesses. The OSE’s mission is not to leave these emerging brands once their licenses are approved, spending a year and a half providing support and guidance as they navigate this relatively new venture. The agency intends to expand its programming by enlisting HBCUs into its outreach, helping young students of color possibly dive into this space.

“Past the whole licensing process, we really hope to spend the next 18 months helping these businesses develop, creating programs around mentorship, and working with HBCUs to create pathways to this industry. How we can look further down the line to support a pipeline is part of our mission?” Johnson asked.

Regarding its legislative advocacy, the agency will continue to amplify policies that align with its values of allowing accessibility to all who wish to venture out into cannabis despite the monetary obstacles that could impede this process.

“Future legislative goals would be continuing to advocate for policies that further promote diversity and inclusion within this market,” stated Johnson. “One of the major challenges and barriers is the investing capital. There’s a lot [of] work being done at a national level around safe banking; what we can do at a state level to support that is a priority. But really, our goal is promoting diversity and inclusion in that we’re allowing access for folks to participate.”

Overall, Maryland’s OSE is determined to amplify the needs and accessibility of those interested in entering the cannabis industry, as the lucrative possibilities are one they refuse to let people of color be blocked from.

“The trend is all around economic opportunity and job creation. It’s wealth-building. We’re excited about being in the front of social equity in cannabis, opening the door, and doing what we can. It’s really to recognize that access and equity need to be what we create this industry and encourage those interested to explore the various resources and support available. Our office was put in place just for that purpose as this sector continues to grow,” Johnson expressed.

Applications for the agency’s inaugural licensing round are set to begin this fall, with potential applicants encouraged to inquire about their eligibility to be part of this groundbreaking initiative.

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