Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, thinking about the line bureaucrats and elected officials walk when it comes to governing ideology. The line between too much government control and too long a legal leash for human nature. This debate, omnipresent through the history of human society, has been exacerbated over the last 18 months with the pandemic, lockdown, masks and vaccines. Really, that shouldn't have surprised anyone. 

However, this debate is on my mind because of a different issue that, though it has always loomed over the American story, also received increased attention in 2020: racial equity and inclusion. What is the government's role here? What about policy? These questions are in front of Monterey County’s Board of Supervisors as they try to address the uneven playing field in the local cannabis industry. 

Communities of color have unequivocally borne the brunt of cannabis arrests in America. Even post-legalization, in Monterey County, Black people were nearly three-times as likely as white people to be arrested for cannabis in 2018, according to the FBI arrest data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union. Criminal justice has been a selling point in legalizing recreational use and sale of cannabis across the country, yet, according to a 2017 survey from the Marijuana Business Journal, 81 percent of cannabis business owners in the U.S. were white. 

Reducing the barriers to entry for, and encouraging participation of, racial minorities has long been discussed in the cannabis industry and in legislative chambers. Cannabis equity programs of all shapes and sizes have cropped up across California, in places like Oakland and San Francisco, and Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Los Angeles has limited all new cannabis retail and delivery business applications to applicants who qualify under its equity program. 

Now, Monterey County, which has a nearly $500 million cannabis cultivation industry, is taking its swing at equity. Supervisors on Oct. 12 voted 4-1 to approve a resolution that gets the ball rolling on developing its Growing Equity Together, or GET, cannabis program. A rough blueprint presented by staff shows the program would offer loans, job training, technical assistance, legal help and permit waivers for qualifying applicants. Who qualifies? Again, initial ideas are people who meet three of four criteria: convicted of a non-violent cannabis offense; identify with a protected class; household income is below the state poverty level; primary resident of Monterey County for at least five years between 1971 and 2016. 

Supervisor Luis Alejo said the program can’t just focus on people who were penalized for cannabis offenses and that it has to look at the greater diversity, both racial and gender, of the industry. 

“It’s making sure that it’s not just people who have access to large capital and can hire people with the know-how … so the industry itself can be reflective of Monterey County,” Alejo said. 

Supervisor John Phillips, the lone no vote, was less-enthused. Although the program would be anchored by state grants, Phillips said he had concerns with using public money for the program. 

“I have a little trouble with the concept of… the state saying we’re going to spend money on this equity thing on the marijuana,” Phillips said. “The people who we were trying to say ‘Stay away from it,’ now we’re saying we want you to come in [and participate]. Perhaps this is public money we should use on things like housing and water.” 

With the supervisors’ blessing, county staff will now begin working with the community to parse out the technical details of the program and will, by the end of the year, apply for state funding to run the program. We could soon see a leveling of the playing field in the local cannabis industry.

What are your thoughts on this level and this type of government regulation in the cannabis industry? I would love to hear from you. 

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