Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force Aims to Overcome Liquor and Cannabis Board’s History of Injustices to Washington’s Black Community

by Luna Reyna

On Monday, Oct. 26, the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force held its first public virtual meeting. It started off like any other virtual meeting — the kind many of us are all too familiar with: the odd feedback and crackling of mics while task force members situated themselves and made sure they could be seen and heard. 

The task force is “responsible for making recommendations to the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to establish a social equity program for the issuance and reissuance of existing retail cannabis licenses.” This is an affront to many Washington residents who feel the LCB has targeted Black cannabis entrepreneurs and has contributed to the gaping racial disparities in the local industry. There are also fewer than 40 licenses that fall under that limited umbrella in the entire state of Washington. 

“The LCB is the agency that created the lack of inclusion in the Washington cannabis industry, and they are the agency that has the power to fix the problem. Instead of doing so, they are choosing to go through this elaborate play from the colonizer, gentrifier play book,” Aaron Barfield with Black Excellence in Cannabis said candidly during the public comment period. Barfield continued explaining that while the Black community has been exploited, they are beginning to organize, so instead of “actually doing something effective and taking their input” the LCB has created a task force “that doesn’t actually have the power to do anything except waste a lot of people’s time.”

After brief introductions from each of the 18 task force members covering who they are and their respective expertise and perspectives, potential strengths and pitfalls in the new task force started to become clear. Paula Sardinas, representing the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, has been an advocate for equitable cannabis laws and industry for 25 years. “I came to this work in the most honest way. My brother spent 25 years imprisoned. He was in prison from the time he was 17 — he was released last year when he was 42. The underlying predicate was trafficking in cannabis because he didn’t see another way for himself as a young Black man to achieve generational wealth. So for the last 25 years, I have been advocating in about 18 states to change cannabis on the federal level but also to look at the sentencing disparities,” Sardinas revealed. 

“What I bring to this is that I also listen to the community,” Sardinas explained later. “I have interviewed 742 people and looked at over 2,500 adjudication records. If someone did not get a cannabis license, we have looked at the data to figure out what is the commonality in that. It is the way that they run licensing at the LCB.”

Sardinas was voted in as the chair of the task force with majority support from task force members and community members who were participating virtually. The same cannot be said for David Mendoza, a task force member who represents Progresso, working on Latino civic engagement and issue advocacy. Previously, Mendoza worked at the Seattle Mayor’s Office under Ed Murray after I-502 was passed. He was instrumental to a civil enforcement task force that was extremely detrimental to Black medical cannabis retail store owners. “I don’t understand how he is on this task force. He was not in tune with Black people back when he was in charge of coming in and cracking down on us,” Peter Manning of Black Excellence in Cannabis explained after initial introductions. 

Manning’s comments resulted in a brief back and forth between he and Mendoza before being cut off by another task force member, Representative Melanie Morgan. This was followed by a comment from Sardinas to Morgan in the chat section of the meeting, “I’m hearing via email and text from actual advocates that they feel cutoff when they speak out. We must be sensitive to how this is being viewed on TVW and in the community. After 155 days of protests in Seattle, Washington, the community needs to be heard in an orderly fashion. We need to ensure there is collaboration with the community and the task force.” 

During public comment, community members had an opportunity to give the task force recommendations and praise, air their concerns, share their experiences, and in many cases, criticisms. Manning addressed Mendoza directly again, “You were purchasing cannabis with your undercover agents, and I pointed out to you that this is only happening in the Black area and you knew that. You were not an advocate for Black people then, at a time when we needed you. What you were was a Mexican face for the white agenda. I know who you are.” Barfield later echoed these sentiments, going as far as to say that Mendoza should be disqualified from participating in the task force. 

The stories from Black community members who have been hurt by the LCB continued as public comment went on. One citizen, Jeffrey, an 80-year-old Black man, explained how he invested time, effort, and money into the cannabis industry only to be denied access to the industry and the generational wealth that would come with business ownership. “I’ve always wondered how you hold such prejudice and racism against a community that helped build this country,” Jeffrey explained. “I’m here to state that we are tired of it. I want you to look into your own head and try to think about why there’s such discrimination from the LCB. Do what you know is right to do.”

While public comment was only open for a portion of the meeting, the chat function was open and active for the entire duration of the meeting, which made for easy and open dialogue between community members and task force members when addressing the task force operating principles. The draft operating principles are: embrace equity, focus on racism, center community, commit to bold action, and be vigilant for unintended consequences. 

During the process of drafting these operating principles, it was suggested that “focus on racism” was changed to “focus on anti-Black racism” in order to center the Black community specifically, since Black men have been the most adversely affected by the war on drugs. Task force members Pablo Gonzalez, a cannabis retail license holder, and Monica Martinez, a producer/processor license holder, adamantly argued against the change in language emphasizing the need to focus on all minority groups, while consistently seeming to misunderstand that centering anti-Black racism does not mean dismissing other forms of racism. This was a little like explaining to the “all lives matter” folks that all lives can’t matter until Black lives do. 

Although this seemed to reveal some of the shortcomings of the task force member choices, the chat section was full of valuable input and discussion on the topic by both community and task force members. Many task force members seem to truly care about creating a more equitable industry and have been doing the work for many years, but the injustices shepherded by the LCB may be too much for this task force to bear. 

“We shouldn’t be asking LCB for anything,” Manning asserted near the end of the seven-hour virtual meeting. “What we should be doing is demanding that this should be done. I am not looking for handouts. They have me right now — it’s like I’m begging for acceptance. I don’t want to feel that way. They stole from my community. They need to hand it back over.” 

Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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