Los Angeles’ Top Cannabis Regulator Details Next Steps for Equity

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation hosted the second of a series of workshops to help prospective social equity applicants prepare their submissions. The workshop covered a series of top-of-mind issues, namely, the department’s budget to roll out the equity program and issue licenses, and the parallel effort to shutter illicit shops.

Inside the Ebony Repertory Theatre in central Los Angeles, some 200 people gathered for the information session. When Cat Packer, the Department’s executive director, took the stage, an audience member shouted: “Alright, I’m excited!” Packer started the event by acknowledging that stakeholders have been waiting for the launch of the social equity program, which is intended to generate ownership and employment opportunities in areas that were disproportionately targeted by law enforcement under prohibition.

“It has been a long time coming,” said Packer, who noted that the policies that guide the program were created back in December 2017. “Now it is June of 2019, and we’re just starting,” she said. “But we’ve been doing a lot of work over the course of the last eighteen months to prepare for this moment.”  

In addition to the information sessions, the Department will host one-one-one “clinics,” where prospective social equity applicants can obtain individualized support. To participate in Phase 3 of the city’s priority licensing process, applicants have until July 29 to be “pre-verified.”

To date, the Department has approved 185 businesses. These businesses, Packer underscored, have received temporary approval, not annual licenses. To obtain an annual license, these retailers are currently undergoing an additional process, something those applying for the social equity program will also have to do in the future.

Per the instruction of the City Council, the Department is also working to determine whether there is a need to expand the eligibility criteria for the program. Currently, residents living nineteen zip codes may qualify. If additional criteria or zip codes are added, said Packer, the Department will re-open the eligibility verification process. Doing so, she noted, may affect the start of the first of two rounds of Phase 3 licensing (tentatively scheduled for September 3, 2019), but that is still to be determined.

During the session, Packer also provided an update about enforcement against unlicensed cannabis establishments.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here, in the City of Los Angeles, is simultaneously determine how to responsibly regulate commercial cannabis activity and also reduce the proliferation of illegal cannabis establishments throughout the city,” she said.

“Given that we have an equity program and given our understanding of the harms that certain cannabis criminalization has caused primarily low-income and minority communities,” she added, “we want to make sure that we are moving forward with an enforcement strategy that does not cause those disproportionate impacts. But we also recognize that in order for our lawful, licensed, and regulated businesses to be able to be successful, they need to be able to compete.”

(Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage on this topic: Cannabis Wire plotted the raids of 105 locations made known in September 2018. Using data provided by the Los Angeles city attorney we determined that the bulk of the arrests were made in pre-prohibition hotspots. The same can be said of the thirty-three crackdowns announced in May 2018.)

Moreover, because the Department does not have the authority to enforce against any unauthorized activity, it partners with law enforcement and other city agencies “to try and strategize and implement policies to deal with the illicit market,” she said.

Part of what we’re trying to do here, in the City of Los Angeles, is simultaneously determine how to responsibly regulate commercial cannabis activity and also reduce the proliferation of illegal cannabis establishments throughout the city.

Cat Packer, director, Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation

Packer also reminded the audience about the Department’s complaint portal, which Los Angeles residents can utilize to report illicit activity. With the information provided through the portal, the Department works with the Mayor’s Enforcement Task Force “to bring a number of local agencies together to address this issue.”

Before stepping out, Packer also indicated that the city approved her recent budget request, noting that “part of the reason why we are able to now implement these programs as we move forward is because we’ve been able to work very closely with the City Council and Mayor to secure funding for a social equity program.” With the $3 million the Department will receive for business licensing and compliance assistance in the next fiscal year, it will hire third party vendors to provide technical assistance to social equity applicants.

A handful of audience members clapped upon hearing this announcement. In response, Packer said that this “is critically important,” as the Department has “heard that there have been predatory practices happening in the community.”

Packer also pledged to make the Department’s information sessions, which have thus far consisted of PowerPoint presentations, much more interactive moving forward.

“This is truly about you all,” she said. “We want you all to be able to participate in the industry. We want this industry to look like this room.”

Amid several more rounds of applause, she added: “Part of what we’re talking about is something that, particularly to this scale, has never been done before. There are only a handful of jurisdictions throughout the entire United States that have equity programs.”

Going back to the subject of enforcement, Packer called for a holistic conversation, saying: “I don’t think it will mean much if we have a cannabis equity program and we’re still being disproportionately arrested. I don’t think that it will mean much if have a successful equity program and our youth and our neighborhoods continue to be targeted.”

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