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San Diego adopts cannabis equity report in push to diversify pot industry

A pile of dried cannabis buds is seen here, Aug. 31, 2017.
Andrew Bowen
A pile of dried cannabis buds is seen here, Aug. 31, 2017.

The San Diego City Council on Tuesday adopted a cannabis equity assessment, paving the way for a city program that aims to help minority entrepreneurs gain a foothold in the legal cannabis industry.

Cannabis equity programs have launched in cities and counties across California since the passage of Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana. Programs typically include several components, such as setting aside cannabis business licenses for people with prior marijuana-related arrests and offering loans or grants to help with startup costs.

In preparing San Diego's equity assessment, the city's Cannabis Business Division analyzed arrest records dating back to 1989. It found, unsurprisingly, that Black and Latino residents were disproportionately criminalized under cannabis prohibition.


Yet many of those people have been excluded from the legal cannabis industry, which the report found is overwhelmingly white.

"Those with the most resources were able to rush through and start hoarding the profits (from legalization), all while folks were still chained down by the actions of the past," said Council President Sean Elo-Rivera. "This is simply an attempt to — not even level the playing field but make it a little bit more level."

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe was an early champion of bringing a cannabis equity program to San Diego, but said she faced resistance from the administration of former Mayor Kevin Faulconer. She said Tuesday while the equity assessment wasn't perfect, it's a prerequisite for receiving state-grant funding to help implement an equity program.

"Of course we don't agree on everything, we've heard that today," Montgomery Steppe said. "But we have to move forward. We have to create this program within the city of San Diego to be eligible for this funding."

Crucial to establishing a cannabis equity program in San Diego will be changes to zoning regulations for cannabis businesses. Those rules were adopted in 2014, when the mayor and City Council were much more conservative on the issue, and have been criticized for creating a fiercely competitive market that is inaccessible to all but the wealthy and well connected.


Current regulations include a cap of four cannabis retail outlets per City Council district and a 1,000-foot separation requirement from parks, schools, churches and other so-called "sensitive uses." Cannabis production facilities have a higher cap, but must be located in industrial zones.

City staffers said they expect to return to council in roughly a year's time with recommendations on how to amend the cannabis zoning rules.

While San Diego is a latecomer to cannabis equity, Armand King, who was incarcerated over marijuana-related charges and later co-founded the nonprofit Paving Great Futures, said that is an asset.

"As you all know, San Diego is the last major city in the state to implement a cannabis social equity program," King said. "This action puts us in a great position because we can learn from our older siblings who have fumbled the ball, and we can do things correctly."