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The very thing that had once torn Ingrid Archie from her daughters and led to her incarceration now made her bubble with unbridled optimism.

It was early 2019, a year after recreational pot sales began in California under Proposition 64, and politicians and activists were proclaiming that Archie and others who grew up in communities disproportionately criminalized by the “war on drugs” could now profit off the legal cannabis industry as entrepreneurs.

Buoyed by that promise — “social equity,” as it became known — Archie, then in her late-30s, began the process of applying for a retail cannabis license. Years earlier, she’d been convicted of possessing pot for sale. Now, she dreamed of opening a holistic community center in South L.A. that would sell edibles, hold homeownership seminars and provide mental health services. Finally, she thought, a pathway to generational wealth for many in her community.

But Archie hit one bureaucratic hurdle after another. Other equity applicants hired attorneys with expertise in navigating the new cannabis regulations, but she couldn’t afford a $10,000 retainer.

“My life was shattered for something that’s now legal, and now I have to jump through hoops?” she said. “I felt demoralized.”

Five years after California voters legalized recreational cannabis for adults, many cities and counties have yet to adopt programs to boost the chances of success for hopeful Black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs. In places that have, those programs have been plagued by a lack of funding, shifting requirements and severe delays in processing applications, often creating additional hardships and roadblocks instead of removing them.

A Times review of state data found that equity applicants represented only a small fraction — less than 8% — of all people granted cannabis licenses through the end of 2020 in several of the state’s largest jurisdictions.
In addition, local officials around the state created different regulations for licensing cannabis businesses and meeting social equity qualifications. So far, existing medical pot dispensaries and established cannabis chains with vastly more experience and resources are frequently winning out. Even city leaders and officials in charge of clearing a pathway for more inclusion acknowledge the programs have struggled.

As a result, a process intended to atone for past wrongs has, for many, made their lives distinctly harder, shattering their stability, wiping out their life savings and jeopardizing homes and property.

A major impediment was the requirement in Los Angeles and other areas that applicants secure property before applying for licenses. As the process became mired in bureaucratic delays, many were stuck paying thousands of dollars a month on empty buildings, prompting some applicants to refinance homes and borrow from relatives.
“People had dreams and hopes of building generational wealth,” said Bonita Money, founder of the L.A.-based National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance. “And it’s done just the opposite. It’s ruining lives at this point.”

California’s legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016 ushered in a multibillion-dollar industry estimated to be the largest legal weed market in the world. But many of the promises of legalization have proved elusive. In a series of occasional stories, we’ll explore the fallout of legal pot in California.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the California Cannabis Equity Act, a measure designed to provide those most harmed by cannabis prohibition “assistance to enter the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry as entrepreneurs or as employees with high-quality, well-paying jobs.”

The law — Senate Bill 1294 — cited state Department of Justice data from 2006 to 2015 showing that Black Californians were five times more likely to be arrested for cannabis felonies than white Californians despite using and selling cannabis at similar rates. During the same period, Latinos were 35% more likely to be arrested for cannabis crimes than white people.

While the law didn’t mandate that cities establish equity programs — and many have not — it paved the way for doling out millions in state funds to those that did. But the ambition of the legislation quickly pushed up against the realities of a limited market already saturated with illegal sales and a few big cannabis companies. Before long, many industry experts say, it became clear that the same people who typically win in other industries — those with the most social, political and economic capital — were winning here too.

Sixteen cities and counties had issued licenses to a combined 203 equity applicants through December 2020, according to a Times review of data in a recent report to state lawmakers. At the same time, 2,355 non-equity applicants got licenses. Many of those went to preexisting medical marijuana dispensaries. Some jurisdictions had not issued a single equity license.

As of early January, officials in Palm Springs and Long Beach said their cities each had one equity cannabis business; San Francisco had 18; Sacramento, 19; and Oakland, 186. And across huge swaths of the state there are no social equity programs, although officials in San Diego are developing one.

Many factors go into choosing a cannabis dispensary. And there are many good reasons to visit a small dispensary: Budtenders are more likely to know their product really well for one. Location and value also come into play. But at some point, selection plays a role in deciding which dispensary to visit. And since it’s an objective means of comparison, we decided to have a go at ranking San Diego County dispensaries on this factor alone.

Research notes: Includes Pre Rolls. Data primarily sourced by dispensary websites. Data collected Jan 25-30 2023.

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