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A push for social equity in Denver marijuana industry

A survey conducted by the city found that Denver's marijuana industry severely lacks diversity with nearly 75% of licensed cannabis business owners being white.

DENVER — On Tuesday, Denver's Finance and Governance Committee advanced three bills designed to reform marijuana regulation in the city.

If the full City Council passes the bills, Denver would opt-in to the state law for municipalities to allow delivery and hospitality establishments.

"This proposal would not only be the biggest changes to marijuana rules and regulations since legalization began, but it would also accomplish a really important goal to make sure more people have equitable access to the industry," said Eric Escudero, spokesman for the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses.

According to that department, which introduced the proposal, the goal is to encourage equitable access to the industry. The proposal is the product of two years of work completed with multiple stakeholder groups throughout the city. 

Truman Bradley, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said a push like this is both welcome and necessary.

"Have we, collectively, done enough?" Bradley asked. "I’m always going to say no. I’m going to say there’s a challenge for us to collectively do more."

According to a June survey conducted by the city, the marijuana industry in Denver severely lacks diversity. The survey found that 74.6% of licensed cannabis business owners within Denver city and county limits are white, along with 68% of employees.

RELATED: City Council moves forward with massive changes to Denver marijuana regulation

Meanwhile, Hispanic or Latino residents account for only 12.7% of owners and 12.1% of employees, despite representing 30% of the population in Denver, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Similarly, Black residents make up roughly 6% of owners and employees but 10% of Denver's population.

"The totality of it is, it’s majority white men," said Sarah Woodson, executive director of The Color of Cannabis. "That’s happening really because of lack of access to capital and also the way the laws are being written."

At The Color of Cannabis, Woodson advocates for more representation of communities of color in the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry.

This year, cannabis sales in Colorado topped the $10 billion mark, just seven years after legalization. 2020 was the highest-selling year yet, with $2.2 billion in sales.

RELATED: It's official: Colorado surpasses $10 billion in cannabis sales since 2014

"And in Denver, we set a record last year with more than $700 million in sales. So, who’s benefiting from that? And who’s not?" Escudero said. 

The answer to that question was clear to Woodson.

"People are still in jail. People are making billions," she said. "It’s important to be involved so that you can create some wealth for yourself and put it back into your community."

As it stands, Denver has a cap on new stores and grows. One of the proposed bills would eliminate the caps, but only social equity applicants would be able to apply for those licenses for six years.

State law defines a social equity applicant as the following: 

  • A Colorado resident
  • Who has not previously owned an MJ business subject to revocation
  • Who holds at least 51% ownership in the business
  • And qualifies with one of the following
    • The applicant resided for at least 15 years between the years 1980 and 2010 in a Census tract designated by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade as an Opportunity Zone or designated as a "Disproportionate Impacted Area";
    • The applicant or applicant's parent, legal guardian, sibling, spouse, child or minor in their guardianship was arrested for a marijuana offense, convicted of a marijuana offense, or was subject to civil asset forfeiture related to a marijuana investigation; or
    • The applicant's household income in a year prior to application did not exceed 50% of the state median income as measured by the number of people who reside in the Applicant's household.

"Those folks should be able to participate, and it’s about all of us coming together to remove those obstacles to be able to participate in a licensed industry," Bradley said.

According to Escudero, proposed marijuana delivery will help remove some of those obstacles. If passed, stores would have to use an outside transporter for the next three years. Those licenses would also be exclusively available to social equity applicants.

"They’re going to get the head start the millionaires who first got into the marijuana industry first got," Escudero said. "They’re going to be able to start this industry and be the godfathers of marijuana delivery at the start of it."

"This is a huge financial opportunity for Black people and brown people to be able to gain some generational wealth," Woodson said.

After Tuesday's vote, the full City Council will have the chance to consider the proposal. Escudero says a vote could happen as early as April.

RELATED: Marijuana delivery to begin in Aurora in 2021 as City Council passes final vote

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