Will Los Angeles’ Cannabis Social Equity Program Ever Get Off the Ground?

cannabis social equity

In 2017, The Los Angeles City Council established the Social Equity Program to address the disproportionate impact of the War of Drugs on communities of color. 

The City Council adopted a commercial cannabis regulatory program that established the Department of Cannabis Regulation to administer all cannabis licensing responsibilities in the City. One of DCR’s most important responsibilities has been to launch the largest cannabis social equity program in the country to ensure the City corrected the decades of injustices borne by communities of color during the War on Drugs.

Four years later it has failed to meet its expectations and hundreds of social equity applicants are tied up in red tape and have not opened their cannabis businesses. 

So let’s backtrack. What does Social Equity mean for the layperson who has heard the term but really does not know what it means like so many other terms circulating these days? When I began to look up definitions of social equity I was startled by how many interpretations there were. Perhaps that is the problem. 

I did particularly like a blog from Australia on defining the inequalities of social equity. Equality or equity is not always fair and perhaps that is the problem. The very first sentence of said blog was like cold water in my face: “social equity sounds like an important and worthwhile concept, but it can mean very different things to different people ”. 

Social equity certainly has a policy and financial aspect to it, but it goes further than that – there are calls for equity in education and health, for example. What about a definition of social equity as meaning treating people equally? The problem here is that there is a slight difference between “equity” and “equality”. As Mary Guy and Sean McCandless (2012: 5) explain: To be clear, “equity” and “equality” are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings.  The difference is one of nuance: while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness. Treating people exactly the same can lead to unequal results. For example, in the oft quoted words of Anatole France from The Red Lily (1894), “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Treating people in an equitable way requires taking into account their individual needs. 

Part of the problem in trying to define the concept of social equity is that it reflects ideas of “fairness” and “justness” which have a normative component in that they are based on moral values or considerations.  What one person thinks is fair may differ markedly from what another thinks is fair. Those working in different disciplines may also have different conceptions of the term. Philosophers such as John Rawls have explored how an equitable society may be brought about through notions of distributive justice and legal theorists have looked at equitable decision-making in terms of procedural fairness.

So before we go down the rabbit hole of definitions, let’s bring it back to this side of the pond. I will start with a brief overview of  Los Angeles’ Cannabis Social Equity Program. 

The Mission of the Social Equity Program is “to promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry in order to decrease disparities in life outcomes for marginalized communities, and to address the disproportionate impacts of the War on Drugs in those communities.”

That is from the L.A. city website. My layperson interpretation of that would be the city is helping people of color and or other marginalized folks with funding so that they can enter the cannabis industry. Why? Because it costs a bundle of money to enter that industry. More than most people have, those impacted by the War on Drugs and not, those who live in marginalized communities and not. 

The website went on to state that Los Angeles was awarded funds through the California Cannabis Local Jurisdiction Equity Grant. 

Through this grant, the City of Los Angeles has been awarded approximately $7.8 million to provide direct assistance to equity applicants and equity licensees in the Social Equity Program.

In March of this year they got even more money! 

On March 15, 2021, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) announced that the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cannabis Regulation has been awarded $2,030,997.42 in grant funding from the California Cannabis Equity Grant Program for Local Jurisdictions. 

Since the launch of the California Cannabis Equity Grant Program for Local Jurisdictions, DCR has been awarded approximately $9.9M in grant funding to support Social Equity Applicants in the City of Los Angeles. 

They have a mission and money. What went wrong? The program rolled out in 2018. 

Los Angeles had granted licenses to long-standing cannabis shops that met city requirements. “New retailers – those in the social equity program – have been slower to get approval.” 

“The program targets entrepreneurs with marijuana arrests, those with low incomes and people who have lived in areas disproportionately affected by cannabis arrests.”

In theory it’s great. But the slow roll-out is hurting the people it was supposed to help. Many are worse off now than they were before they started. 

As of February 2021, Los Angeles had awarded 143 social equity licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and other upstream business types, according to the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation. There are 200 qualified applicants waiting for retail permits tripping over red tape. 

The biggest problem in Los Angeles has been a requirement that all retail applicants have a property – either leased or purchased – before applying for business licenses.  For many, that’s meant renting space and sitting on it for months with no revenue coming in, while waiting for the city to process license applications.

And as if things could not get worse a lawsuit was filed in April of this year seeking to overturn Los Angeles’ cannabis social equity licensing process. 

The lawsuit points to the results of an independent audit released in March that show 226 applicants for 100 available social equity marijuana retail permits were able to log into L.A.’s online application platform before the official 10 a.m. start time for the first-come, first-served permitting line.  “Clearly, with only 100 applications being processed on a ‘first come, first serve basis’ … the 226 applicants that accessed the Accela portal early would have a significant advantage over other applicants that waited until 10:00 a.m.,” the suit argues.  The lawsuit also alleges that city officials have “no reliable means of determining which applicants actually won the race and where they should be placed in the licensing processing queue.”

Now four years from the inception of the Social Equity Program and numerous complaints later about licensing delays, DCR’s procedures and most worrying ‘Social Equity Applicants have repeatedly shared that they believe DCR is actually the greatest impediment to their success” a motion has been introduced by Councilmembers Marquece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price to fix the problems at DCR. 

 The motion will: 

  • Set deadlines of between 30 and 60 days for DCR to review and respond to applications and modification requests
  • Establish clear rules and procedures that DCR cannot modify without City Council approval
  • Eliminate DCR’s pointless bureaucratic requirements that do nothing but hinder applicants
  • Rescind arbitrary deadlines set by DCR that are preventing applications from relocating or making ownership changes

Social equity will only work by “making the right decision for all people and not specific groups as well as emphasizing fairness among communities so all can have the same benefits and opportunities”.

For those readers who would like to be part of this movement to move the DCR in a better direction you can visit the Coloured Cannabis website for additional information. Or follow them on social media:


https://twitter.com/colouredcanabis?s=11In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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