What would economic justice look like if Cannabis were legalized in NH?
New Hampshire is the only New England state that has yet to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
Lawmakers in support of legalization have put forth a number of proposals over the years, but there hasn’t been a significant push for economic justice for people disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition in New Hampshire.
In Vermont and Massachusetts, lawmakers have prioritized economic justice programs in cannabis legalization. These programs focus on business opportunities and investments in communities that have historically been most impacted by incarceration for cannabis possession.
New Hampshire Bulletin reporters Ethan DeWitt and Hadley Barndollar looked at how cannabis prohibition has affected Granite Staters. They spoke with NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about how neighboring states approached the idea of economic justice and what it could look like in New Hampshire.
Can you both first explain what economic justice programs look like for neighboring states where cannabis is legal? What's the purpose of these programs, Hadley?
Hadley Barndollar: So when we're talking about economic justice and equity in cannabis legalization and sales, we're talking about allowing and empowering the communities that have been most historically impacted by incarceration as a result of marijuana possession.
So Massachusetts really made headlines back in 2018 when it was actually the first state in the country to mandate that equity be a part of its framework for its retail cannabis market. That was largely celebrated at the time. And the intent was for people and communities who have been most impacted by historical law enforcement to be the first in line to reap the benefits of the new industry. So various programs were put in place, such as a social equity program where participants receive free education [and] technical assistance. Certified applicants could apply as economic empowerment applicants, giving them priority licensing.
But ultimately, it was really interesting to see that there were still major barriers for entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, and a lot of them said it had to do with capital. Capital was the main barrier holding them back. So last August, lawmakers in Massachusetts created a trust fund to essentially provide money to social equity entrepreneurs to kind of break down those barriers to enter the industry.
Now, Ethan, same objective in Vermont, but a different approach.
Ethan DeWitt: So Vermont really kind of slowed down their legalization where other states kind of came out of the gate and decided to legalize retail and possession. Vermont started off with possession, and then years later added retail. And advocates that I've talked to in Vermont and growers say that that process had benefits to the ultimate result. What the state was able to do is control what the retail market would look like and set some of the guidelines.
And they also added in measures to try to make sure that there were equity opportunities for people who were impacted. They created a Cannabis Business Development Fund, which is a $500,000 state funded initiative to provide low interest loans. They actually built in the ability for social equity applicants. And if you qualified, which meant you were Black or Hispanic, or you came from a community disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, or you were previously incarcerated for cannabis offense, you could qualify for lower license fees. So they built that into their market moving forward and they limited how many licenses a business can hold. So they tried to curb some of the monopolies we've seen in other states. There have been these major companies that have come in and snapped up these retail operations. You see that a lot in Massachusetts, and that's one of the big concerns that you hear from advocates about the Massachusetts model.
And so advocates on the ground in Vermont say that they're very happy with how that has come out. They compare it to the craft beer model. You might see a microbrewery approach to cannabis in Vermont versus a major corporation in other states.
What do we know about New Hampshire residents that have been affected by cannabis prohibition?
Hadley Barndollar: So [an] American Civil Liberties Union report came out a couple of years ago showing data from 2010 to 2018 that Black people in New Hampshire were four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than their white counterparts. And that likelihood also varied county to county. For example, Black people in Cheshire County were 13 times more likely, the highest disproportionality in the state, according to the ACLU report.
"Some folks that we spoke with said that equity could absolutely be included in a state controlled model."
Now, Ethan, what policies would legalization advocates in New Hampshire like to see that would address that issue?
Ethan DeWitt: So in New Hampshire, we've seen a number of cannabis bills, but last year there was this big effort. It was months long. It involved a number of organizations across the political spectrum – The American Civil Liberties Union on the left, Americans for Prosperity on the right, the Marijuana Policy Project, New Hampshire Cannabis Association.
And what they came up with was a broad framework in December for how to legalize retail taxation and regulation. And one thing that they added to that framework was the Cannabis Business Development Fund. And this would set aside a portion of the taxes and fees that would be collected and it would devote it to allowing small growers or impacted communities to have more resources to start businesses, whether that would be retail sales or growing operations.
But in January, after that framework came out, we saw the bill. And the bill had left out a lot of the elements that had to do with equity. That Cannabis Business Development Fund was gone. There was barely any mention of equity at all. Moving forward this year, we've seen that bill, House Bill 639, in various forms. It did not survive in the end. But we have seen it progress through committees and we've seen attempts to try to add those equity provisions back in. And we've seen those attempts be blocked in the House Commerce Committee. It was blocked because the chairman said that it wasn't relevant to cannabis legalization. So while stakeholders may be looking to other states for their models, lawmakers are thus far not so interested.
Rick Ganley: And Gov, Sununu says that he's supportive of a cannabis retail market that looks like the state liquor store model, which would be unique for the region. But what did advocates that you spoke with, Hadley, have to say about the potential for that kind of approach?
Hadley Barndollar: So through our reporting, we identified that, say New Hampshire did go the route of a state controlled cannabis market, that would be the first of its kind in the country so far. So basically, there were kind of mixed reviews. There were people who were very against the idea that the same state, the same government that has been arresting and enforcing marijuana would now be controlling the sales of it and benefiting from the sales.
Then again, I interviewed a former cannabis commissioner out of Massachusetts who said that no equity efforts have proved totally successful across the country yet, and maybe a state-run market is something that at least one state needs to try out. And she thought with the liquor commission model that New Hampshire might be that candidate.
So what would that state model look like? How would it address equity?
Hadley Barndollar: So as presented from Gov. Sununu right now and the conversations in the Legislature, there is not equity included. However, some folks that we spoke with said that equity could absolutely be included in a state controlled model, like a large percentage of the tax revenue, for example, going back to be invested in communities that have been disproportionately impacted. Folks were saying that jobs and businesses are not the only way to introduce equity into a cannabis market.
Ethan, the State House session has come to a close. What's next for this issue?
Ethan DeWitt: Well, at the conclusion of the session, the Legislature added in a study commission. So throughout the summer and into the fall, lawmakers will be looking at how New Hampshire might put together a system in which the state liquor commission does control sales. And that's when maybe these conversations about equity might be revisited or not. We'll have to watch that.