Maine House Speaker’s Bill Would Aid Marijuana Equity Businesses And Remove License Restrictions For People With Drug Convictions

“The barriers to economic success in the cannabis industry are stacked highest against people of color.”

By AnnMarie Hilton, Maine Morning Star

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee had a public hearing last week on a bill to make Maine’s cannabis industry more equitable.

The bill, LD1517, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), would create a program to remove barriers for individuals formerly convicted of a cannabis-related crime to enter and benefit from the now-legalized industry.

In written testimony, Talbot Ross pointed out how the War on Drugs, which dates back to the 1970s, disproportionately imprisoned Black people and those in poverty for cannabis-related crimes.

“Opportunities to mitigate that harm are long overdue,” she said.

The bill proposes a pathway to entrepreneurship while decreasing wage gaps for people of color and other socially excluded groups.

Under an amended version, the bill wants to establish a Social Equity Development Fund to provide seed grants for new businesses. It would fall under the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and accept funding from the private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.

The proposal also seeks to create three new positions to support new business owners. A business navigator would conduct outreach to relevant communities and connect them with education and technical business assistance. An ombudsperson would assist with licensing and regulatory compliance. And a workforce navigator, housed in the Department of Labor, would work with DECD to create apprenticeship opportunities. There would also be a Social Equity Cannabis Initiative within the Office of Cannabis Policy to provide mentoring and waive license and renewal fees.

The bill would also remove the current five-year “look back” that disqualifies people with a drug conviction from becoming licensed.

The ACLU of Maine supports the bill because it would make the cannabis industry fairer, according to testimony submitted by policy counsel Michael Kebede.

Legalizing marijuana improved the state by generating employment, tourist revenue and economic benefit, but “some of us have been left behind,” Kebede said.

According to a 2020 ACLU study, Black people in Maine were four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in 2018. In York County, they were 12 times more likely.

“The barriers to economic success in the cannabis industry are stacked highest against people of color,” Kebede said.

During the public hearing for the bill, a few people spoke in opposition, arguing that the idea conflicts with a free market economy.

Committee member Rep. David Boyer (R-Poland) asked Amy McFarland, a medical cannabis farmer and co-director of Liberate Maine Cannabis, who testified against the bill, if she agrees that the war on drugs disproportionately affected people of color in Maine and nationally.

McFarland said there may be data on it, but she, a white woman, has never witnessed racial discrimination in the charging of drug crimes. Boyer followed up by asking if the state has a responsibility to acknowledge its wrongdoing and make up for it, assuming the data is correct.

“When the state perpetrates harm, does the state have any responsibility to make up for it or you prefer them just say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to do it anymore. They have to deal with the fallout?’” Boyer asked, acknowledging that it was a “big question.”

Prior to serving in the Legislature, Boyer led the campaign to legalize marijuana in Maine on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Samantha Brown, founder of Liberate Maine Cannabis, also spoke against the bill saying it would line the pockets of consultants without creating real equity in the industry. Instead, she said she’d like to see expensive licensing fees removed—like what’s outlined in the Social Equity Cannabis Initiatives.

Boyer asked Brown if she would support removing the five-year look back. She said, “Absolutely.”

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is scheduled to have a work session on the bill Wednesday.

This story was first published by Maine Morning Star.

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