Missouri hasn’t even begun to review applications from businesses looking to participate in its new medical marijuana program. But the state health department has already announced that it will not implement any measures or programs to boost minority-owned medical cannabis businesses.
Two Democratic state lawmakers have each introduced bills that would compel the health department to give minority and women applicants a leg up. But neither bill has seen any progress in the Republican-controlled legislature. Without any equity measures in place, there are concerns that larger national and international cannabis companies will squeeze out smaller, locally-owned businesses, making those with limited access to capital incapable of entering the medical market.
Missouri Health Department Will Not Work to Ensure Equity in Its Medical Cannabis Industry
For decades, drug war-fueled mass incarceration has devastated poor and minority communities across the country. So, too, has redlining and other forms of economic discrimination that make it very difficult for vulnerable groups to obtain loans for housing and small businesses. The United States already has one of the largest wealth disparities in the world. And when broken down across racial categories, it’s obvious: wealth disparity has a color.
These are facts virtually no one disputes. Which is why many states and municipalities across the U.S. have legalized cannabis with an eye toward equity. Now that an activity that was harshly and punitively criminalized is a booming legal industry, there’s an urgent need to redress the myriad and long-standing harms of marijuana prohibition.
Equity provisions range from establishing processes for expedited criminal record expungement for those with minor marijuana convictions to giving people from historically targeted and disenfranchised communities who want to enter the legal market a way to compete against massive, global cannabis firms.
For example, the federal SAFE Banking Act, which recently cleared a key House committee, would compel government agencies to study and find ways to improve access to financial services for minority- and women-owned cannabis companies. And in Connecticut, a recently unveiled plan to legalize cannabis for adult use would give minority applicants a three month head start on the licensing process. Several other states and cities are reinvesting cannabis tax revenue in communities worst-impacted by prohibition.
But the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services will take no steps to promote or ensure equity in its licensing process. Instead, officials said they will strip all identifying information from cannabis business license applications before reviewing them.
Is Missouri Shutting Out Black and Latino Communities?
Officials said the reason for the blind review process is to prevent corruption. But Dre Taylor, who founded Nile Valley Aquaponics, said the decision will hurt Black and Latino communities’ ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the legal medical cannabis market. “Spent 30 years criminalizing a certain population, you would think you would have something set up in terms of equity,” said Taylor.
Yet efforts to improve minority participation and broader equity in the cannabis industry have not been met without challenges—typically, from applicants who were not selected. In Ohio, for example, PharmaCann sued the Ohio Department of Commerce over the use of “racial preferences” in its medical marijuana licensing system. A judge subsequently ruled in PharmaCann’s favor, finding the equity measures unconstitutional.
Ultimately, Missouri’s health department will issue at least 24 dispensary licenses in each of the state’s eight congressional districts. For the 192 available slots, the health department has already received more than 260 applications. Application fees range from $6,000 to $10,000 dollars depending on the type of operation. And without formal measures to encourage and assist minority applicants, large operators with vast resources and footprints in other states will likely dominate the application process, Taylor said.