Considering how lengthy national cannabis prohibition and the subsequent societal brutality of the War On Drugs were, it’s quite daunting to consider that recreational cannabis has been legal in Colorado for nearly a decade. Since the 2012 bill Amendment 64 passed by an 11% margin, the Rocky Mountain State’s cannabis industry has grown to support the livelihoods of some 41,000 people at its highest point of job creation and sold $1.7 billion in total retail sales in 2022 and more than half a billion dollars just in the first four months of 2023. Along with Washington State, Colorado absolutely paved the way and stood as an example of the tax revenue and job creation possibilities when states repeal their prohibitive laws on cannabis.
Even with all the increasing job creation figures and the estimated $36.7 billion of retail cannabis that will be sold in 2023, the various social impacts of both cannabis prohibition and the greater drug war are still painfully present in marginalized communities across the states with legal cannabis. Whether that be the thousands of people still incarcerated for cannabis-related charges or the many cannabis industry regulations that exclude individuals with any felonies on their record whatsoever from employment in the industry, the ramifications and continued disadvantages caused by the trillion-dollar national failure known as the drug war are still very much active.
To combat the many societal wrongs of the War On Drugs, states with legal cannabis have begun implementing social equity opportunities within their industries. Social equity is the inclusion in the cannabis industry and business ownership space of people from zip codes and communities most impacted by the previous criminalization of cannabis. Prior cannabis policies disproportionately went after communities of color and other historically marginalized groups, while people from those same communities are now being woefully underrepresented in the legal industry. Needless to say, social equity policies are long overdue.
Despite being one of the first states to have recreational cannabis, Colorado didn’t implement any social equity-related policies until 2020 with House Bill 20-1424. Governor Jared Polis announced a further measure in 2023 to offer startup loans through equity-based lender NuProject to social equity applicants in Colorado that range from $50-$150,000. This is truly a historic gesture for a state to sponsor social equity inclusion to such an extent.
Another historic moment for social equity in Colorado cannabis occurred just recently. The Color of Cannabis is a Denver-based organization dedicated to bolstering minority representation and social equity opportunities in the cannabis industry.
“The organization is focused on three pillars: criminal justice reform, policy reform and education,” Executive Director Sarah Woodson says. “The big reason why minorities weren’t prioritized in our state was because there was no one representing them at the decision-making tables and that’s how the Color of Cannabis was started. I don’t think it was a purposeful oversight, but I just think that there weren’t enough people there to represent the needs of folks of color.”
The Color of Cannabis is making social equity history as they just announced the acquisition of a 9,000-square-foot turn-key manufacturing facility that will be wholly occupied by social equity businesses. To maximize the number of opportunities for social equity cannabis businesses, the organization plans on splitting the facility into six different individual suites, guaranteeing the space specifically for social equity businesses.
“We’re splitting the costs across the board and helping them navigate the entire process to licensing. I’m excited because it’s never been done in Colorado before,” Woodson says. “I chose the name ‘The Color of Cannabis’ because our organization is a mix of people—Black people, brown people, white people—all of whom have been negatively impacted by cannabis prohibition; they’ve lived in impacted neighborhoods and have had families that have been incarcerated.”
The Color of Cannabis offers a ten-week course that teaches a range of topics, from “the traumatic to the trivial” as Woodson describes. The course is quite thorough and includes the basics of cannabis’ millennia-spanning history; the rigorous dual-licensing process that Colorado has in place; the endless number of regulations and SOPs that cannabis operators must religiously follow; and problematic federal laws.
“We’re helping them write a business plan in ten weeks and practice pitching so if they get in front of an investor, they have the right posture and they know their numbers,” Woodson says.
The opening of the facility will certainly be a major milestone for social equity development in both the Colorado and nationwide industry. Woodson and The Color of Cannabis view the facility as a possible experiment as well which would pose the question if a small cannabis business can survive once you reduce the astronomically high overhead expenses.
“Right now, in Colorado, the industry is way more diverse.,” Woodson says. “When I first started attending cannabis organization meetings, there were no people of color. Then I saw 10, and then 15 and then 20. While it’s small and incremental, it’s definitely impactful.”