After Missed Census Tract Mapping Deadline, First Meeting of Connecticut Cannabis Social Equity Council Concludes With Action Taken On Identifying Areas Of Disproportionate Impact and Establishment of Subcommittees

Historic first meeting met with accolades and optimism from advocates, lawmakers and Governor Ned Lamont

Screenshot: CT-N Network Hearing Livestream, Youtube

"I think this day had been a long time coming and I want to thank each and every one of you for agreeing to serve on one of the most important initiatives we are currently undertaking", said Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont as he convened the inaugural meeting of the state's cannabis Social Equity Council.

The formal regulatory body met in public for the first time Thursday, and quickly got down to work under the informed and cogent stewardship of Chairperson
Andrea Comer, the Interim Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Consumer Protection.

The Social Equity Council itself was created as part of a
comprehensive cannabis legalization package that was passed into law by state lawmakers just months ago, in June of 2021, and as of now 3 of its 15 members are yet to be appointed. Nonetheless, having a quorum present today, the Council was able to convene and conduct business.

Speaking at the time the law creating the council and legalizing adult use cannabis was passed, Governor Lamont told members of the press;

“For decades, the war on cannabis caused injustices and created disparities while doing little to protect public health and safety...the law that I signed today begins to right some of those wrongs by creating a comprehensive framework for a regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, criminal justice, and equity."

As a result,
the law Lamont signed (PDF Warning) -- after months, if not years, of prolonged negotiations between the Executive Office, lawmakers in the State House and grassroots activists who were intent on ensuring the law was not used as a tool to provide a state sanctioned oligopoly for a small group of existing corporate medical cannabis giants currently operating under the parameters of Connecticut's medical program -- included extensive provisions related to ensuring meaningful pathways to ownership, and substantial economic benefits, for individuals and communities that were disproportionately harmed by a decades long racist drug war.

One of the ways the law envisioned those equity goals being both established, and enforced, was by way of the existence of the Social Equity Council itself, something lauded by advocates and policy makers alike at the time of the bill's passing as a reflection of lessons learned in other states and a willingness to "get things right the first time around."

Lamont himself nominated five members to the Social Equity Council on the 22nd of July.

“I’m proud that the cannabis law includes provisions requiring the state to establish a marketplace that is fair, well-regulated, and places a priority on social equity, particularly when it comes to righting some of the wrongs of recent decades,” Governor Lamont said at the time. “The so-called war on drugs, which was really a war on Black and Brown people, caused severe injustices and disparities within certain communities while doing little to protect public health and safety. The carefully selected and well-qualified Social Equity Council will play an important role as Connecticut’s cannabis marketplace transitions from one that has been dangerous and unregulated, to one that will support a new equitable sector of our economy. In the coming years, it will play a crucial role in reinvesting broadly into the most impacted communities.”

The Council got off to somewhat of a rocky start, however, with some advocates noting on social media earlier this week that the body had already missed an August 1st statutory deadline to provide a census tract map identifying geographical areas in
Connecticut wherein the drug war had disproportionate impact.

Without that initial step, applicants seeking to obtain social equity status and move forward in the licensing process were de facto unable to do so.

Today, however, the Council voted to publish that map identifying the specific areas of disproportionate impact and, almost instantly, the map was published in full, including links to an anylasis of how the geocoding process (PDF Warning) used to contextualize the data was structured, on the state government's website within an hour of the meeting formally concluding.

Joseph Raymond, President and Policy Liaison of the New England Craft Cannabis Alliance, a group integral in helping to pass adult use legalization in Connecticut, noted the important work ahead for the budding regulatory body;

"I'm glad that [the Council] are already looking and discussing how going forward they can improve the way they determine eligibility for a 'social equity applicant'", he said. "In particular, the Councillors acknowledged that the current census tract qualifier includes a higher unemployment rate of 10% over state median in an area could make someone eligible and that doesn’t necessarily help areas disproportionately affected by the war on drugs."

Jason Ortiz, the Executive Director of Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), speaking to me in an interview Thursday afternoon following the conclusion of the hearing said of the map, “[w]hile it’s definitely odd to approve something as important as the DIA map while not having a full council, I’m excited to see my community included in this tremendous opportunity. It’s a long hill to climb but you climb a mountain one step at a time and this is a step forward.”

The release of the map, after the initial missed deadline, will obviously go a long way when it comes to rebuilding trust with a grassroots advocacy community long since jaded to the tactics of corporate subversion and the prevailing patterns of the political doldrums alike.

Going forward, as the Social Equity Council continues its work, some advocates say more work needs to be done to ensure full participation in the emerging adult use market by those most harmed by the drug war.

Christina Capitan, a Cannabis Community Advocate, told me after Thursday's hearing that she saw potential unintended consequences of the current formula for identifying those most harmed by prohibition;

"I am grateful that many negatively effected by cannabis prohibition in our communities will become eligible to engage in this industry...I am however concerned with the way these disproportionately effected communities are being identified through census tract..I have a feeling too many will be left out. I also have great concern for those who have faced legal issues, lost many opportunities and even had their families lives torn apart by bad laws still not being included as potential equity applicants."

Shawn Wooden, the State Treasurer and an Ex-Officio member of the Council, said at today's hearing of the proposed DIA map that, because any changes to the criteria set forth in the statute would require legislative approval -- something that could take upwards of a year -- he was, like the Chairperson, "weary of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good" and thus cast his vote in support.

The Social Equity Council will continue to hold public meetings going forward, including via ad-hoc committees, and a provisional schedule was drafted at the conclusion of the meeting.

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