OAKLAND, Calif. — During the 1980s and ’90s, Alexis Bronson’s illegal cannabis delivery business could barely keep up with demand.
In the spring, Bronson made weekly trips to the redwood forests of Humboldt County to buy marijuana wholesale from renegade growers with farms hidden in the hills of Northern California. Bronson would wrap 5 or 10 pounds of marijuana in a plastic garbage bag, tuck it into the trunk of his rental car, and head south on Highway 101 to his hometown of Oakland.
In the 1980s, Bronson said in an interview with Stateline, he would buy a pound of marijuana for $1,500 to $1,800 and resell it for nearly triple that amount in Oakland.
But the lucrative business came with serious risks. Bronson exercised caution about where and when he delivered his product, avoiding traditional street-corner exchanges. It was the war on drugs era, and police worked swiftly to round up dealers and buyers under the mandate to crack down on drug activity.
Now, as more states legalize recreational marijuana and the federal government moves away from incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, several cities in California are trying to atone for decades of drug enforcement that fell disproportionately upon minorities.
They’ve created what are known as cannabis equity programs, meant to welcome more minority and low-income entrepreneurs into the now-legal industry.
The programs provide business development, loan assistance and mentorships to eligible owners. Hundreds have applied in the past year. But “pot equity” has struggled with growing waitlists, and some participants allege that the programs aren’t fair to the people they’re meant to be helping.
Cities such as Oakland have created incubator programs that pair an established marijuana company, called a non-equity business, with an equity cannabis business — run by an entrepreneur whose background might otherwise make it hard to get into the pot industry.
The goal of “cannabis equity” is to lower the barriers to entry into the legal cannabis industry for people who were disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana. The programs base eligibility on a variety of factors, including marijuana convictions, residency in a heavily policed district and income.
Today, several city partnership programs require that established, non-equity businesses provide an equity business with space for several years rent-free. In exchange, the non-equity company receives faster processing for city approvals. Cities such as Sacramento plan to waive up to tens of thousands of dollars in application and permit fees for eligible cannabis businesses.
But pot equity has struggled to get going. Understaffing in San Francisco’s cannabis office has left a growing waitlist of applicants, and the city doesn’t expect to begin approving businesses until sometime in 2019, said Nicole Elliott, director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis. She could not be more specific on timing.
Some applicants argue that the waiting period has allowed other businesses to get an unfair head start. In Oakland, some pot equity businesses claim their incubator partners never followed through on the requirement to provide them with business development assistance or a space to operate.
Bronson, an African-American, now owns one of those pot equity businesses.