June 9, 2021
The Future of Social Equity and Social Justice in Europe
At Prohibition Partners LIVE last month, an expert panel explored how a legal cannabis industry in Europe could look with a socially-focused approach to Cannabis. Watch and read insights from leading European and North American figures, as they take a deep dive into what must be done to create a fair and just industry in Europe.
11th June 2021
The Future of Social Equity & Social Justice in Europe panel consisted of: Sunny Hundal (Journalist at The Guardian & The Independent), Al Harrington (former NBA player and Founder of Viola Inc.), Niamh Eastwood (Executive Director of Release), Aras Azadian (CEO of Avicanna) and Cyrus Engerer (MEP for Malta).
Below is a full transcription of the insightful and engaging panel discussion.
Sunny Hundal: Hi, everyone. My name is Sunny Hundal. I’m a journalist and commentator based in the UK. I’ve been writing for about 15 to 20 years for most of the UK newspapers. I’m also on the board of Volteface, an advocacy organization looking at drug reform in the UK. I’m based here in London, and I have a fantastic panel with me today, to talk about how social justice and equity can be brought into cannabis, and the cannabis space in Europe. And we’ve got perspectives from all over the world. With me today is Al Harrington, who is CEO of Viola Brands. Niamh Eastwood, who is executive director of Release, a charity. Cyrus Engerer, MEP, who is a Member of Parliament for Malta, and Aras Azadian, who is CEO of Avicanna. Thank you for joining me, everyone.
So, I guess I’ll start with why… we’ll start with you, Niamh, why do we need a social justice and equity sort of approach to cannabis? And I know that you and your charity has done some research into this space. Could you just briefly tell us about what you found, and why this is so needed for the cannabis space?
Niamh Eastwood: Well, thanks, Sunny, and a pleasure to be here, really excited to be part of this panel today. And I think it’s a really timely discussion. It’s 50 years since the launch of The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in the UK. My organization was actually set up in 1967, just before that act. And so, over the years, we’ve been able to document drug prohibition and how cannabis prohibition has impacted on communities. In 2018, we produced a report that showed that in terms of drug law enforcement, it’s very much focused on cannabis possession offenses. So, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 police stop and searches are for cannabis. And it disproportionately impacts on Black communities in the UK; with Black people 9 times more likely to be stopped a search for drugs, they’re 11 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession offenses. And this is despite the fact that that drug use amongst that community is much lower than the White population.
So, this is really about how the drug laws have been used as a form of kind of social and racial control. And really, you have to start to have conversations about what solutions look like, and which solutions are very much premised in repairing those hearts of drug policy reform. There’s a lot of learning at the minute from the US that we can have a bigger discussion about here. But I think if we’re honest about saying that the opportunities that have developed in cannabis regulation, and cannabis markets, have come from us evidencing that drug policy, and drug prohibition does not work. And so, therefore, if we’re pointing to those harms, we have to have find solutions that seek to repair those harms.
Sunny Hundal: And when I spoke to you before this discussion, you offered me 3 solutions. And she said that these 3 things are what we need to see. Could you tell me more about that?
Niamh Eastwood: Well, definitely. And I think I’m really looking forward to hearing what Al and Aras and Cyrus have to say. Al probably has more experience in the US context, but I think when we first saw cannabis legalization coming out of the US, we expected a very hyper-commercialized model to be the dominant narrative. We’re almost 10 years old from the first States legalizing, and in fact, the dominant narrative in the US is one that is premised on social equity. The 3 principles that we are talking about in our organization, learning from States like Massachusetts and New York most recently, are very much focused on making sure that people who have been criminalized for activities within the market are released from prison and that there’s an expungement of their records.
Secondly, that decriminalization of cannabis possession offenses is also married within the system of cannabis regulation. So, decriminalization is making sure that people aren’t policed or prosecuted for possession of cannabis that is procured from outside of regulated markets, but has to be part of it, otherwise, the same people who were thrown under the bus of prohibition will continue to be thrown under a bus. And finally, market participation. How do we make sure that people have the resources, skills and the opportunities to participate in the market? As I said, I think Al probably will have more insight to talk about that experience from the US context.
Sunny Hundal: Yeah, let’s do that. Al, thanks for joining us. Tell us a little bit more about Viola Labs, and what you think is the stuff that you’re learning from the United States and the stuff that we shouldn’t be doing that is being done in the United States?
Al Harrington: Yeah, I think the main point is it’s about really learning from the mistakes of the United States that helps your programs obviously be more successful. Because the intention of social equity is to create wealth and generational wealth, especially when you think about how big this industry is, and the opportunities that are within it. And to Niamh’s point, some of the main things are when you get this opportunity, it’s like, “Now what?” Because we are pioneers in the industry. It’s not like you can just go up the street or to your neighbor and ask for advice on how to grow a plant, or how to run a business, or how to operate in a highly regulated environment. And I think that that’s some of the things that Europeans should think about, as they roll out this program.
One of the main things that we’ve dealt with here in the United States is the education around these licenses and how to operate them, and also the resources around them. Because when you give people that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs opportunity, they come from communities where they never really had any opportunities, any outlets or anything like that. So, now you say, “Here’s a license that you need a couple of million dollars to be able to stand up the business,” it’s like, “Where am I going to get that from? I’ve struggled to be able to save $10,000, in my bank account, let alone have resources or relationships where I can go and raise millions of dollars.”
So, I think that that’s where the governments should be able to use tax revenue money from cannabis, especially, because they’re going to give these bigger companies these licenses out of the gate. We already see, like, in the United States, we have States like Maryland and other states, where they did $700 million in revenue with 14 operators for cultivation and different things like that. All that tax revenue, where is it going? It should go back into these programs to be able to build more businesses, so that obviously the revenues will continue to grow. And then where’s that money going back to? And I feel like places like New York, I actually like the path that they’re going down, but we have to continue to stand on them and be a part of the process to make sure that a lot of the intent that they have in the legislation actually happens.
Because if it happened, it is equitable for our community, when you see that they’re going to get interest free loans, they’re going to give a lot of support to these people that will need to be able to sign up these businesses and be able to run them. Because I can say from experience, if I had to run my license by myself, I would have been in trouble. But thank God that I was able to have some resources, to be able to hire some really smart people to help us stay compliant, and be able to be here 10 years later still operating in this highly regulated business, where there’s a lot of shakes and turns and pivots that we’ve had to make. But like I said, we were able to have some of the resources to be able to do that, and most people can’t.
So, those are like 2 of the main things, all around education. I think that every question you asked me is going to come back to the education side like, “How much of a foundation can we give the social equity applicants from a basis of knowledge? And then also, what resources can we offer them?” Because once again, here in the US, the investors that are investing in the social equity licenses, most times, 95% of the time are predatory investors. The people that have these licenses end up owning 3 – 5% of the license. And the first time that they default or anything like that, potentially they can be run out of their business. And that’s not what the intention of social equity is. It’s for ownership, and it’s for giving these people an opportunity to run profitable businesses, and then give back to our community. Because we feel like, I feel like for sure, that the cannabis plant was used to destroy our community. But if we have a real equitable opportunity and position in the space, we can rebuild it.
Sunny Hundal: Great. Aras, I’ll come to you next. What is your view on the space that we’re in? And what would you want more in terms of social equity when it comes to the cannabis space in Europe especially?
Sunny Hundal: Okay. Well, let’s go to Cyrus first. I think we’ll have to wait for Aras to come back in. Cyrus, you’re an MEP in Malta and you’re watching, not just your own country, but also watching Europe grapple with this issue of cannabis legalization. Where are we headed? And what are you worried about?
Cyrus Enger: So, thank you, first of all, for inviting me to this interesting discussion today. As a member of European Parliament, yes, I do focus on all of the European Union. But then obviously, I have a special interest in my country, which at the end of the day, I’m representing. There’s no clear way where Europe is heading to, there is no harmonized way in which Europe is heading. Each member State has its own policy. This is not the competence of the European Union, and each and every member State device has its own policies with regards to cannabis use. It is a very timely debate also here in Malta, because the Maltese government, as promised before the elections 4 years ago, has just finished the consultation period for cannabis for personal use. And the government was proposing in its white paper decriminalization, but not legalization, but no legal avenue for users to actually buy the product.
However, as a party, the Labour Party, which isn’t government, and as a majority government on its own, we decided to contribute to the discussion as a party itself, and we’re proposing legalization. We’re currently delving into the different options that we have for legalization. And I think that there are 2 routes basically, in which we could go. One is the American maybe Dutch route, which we have seen in the commercialization, let’s say, of cannabis buying. Or else the route that Spain, for instance, has taken, and which we have seen also in South America and Uruguay, for instance, where you get some cannabis social clubs. And what I am advocating and what I have recommended the government to do is to invest in, I would call them cannabis social enterprises. Because at the end of the day, it is an entrepreneurial way of doing things as well. I believe that people should be able to buy the product that they are going to use, to know what is in the product, and be able to consume it without having to resort to the black market to buy their own product. So, I think that is one of the most important things.
At the end of the day, those people who use cannabis will still buy cannabis. And let’s make sure that, as Al said before, at the end of the day, this will lead to revenue for the country, which then could be spent… I’m a member of European Parliament who serves on the Public Health Committee. So, public health is very much important. There could be revenue that could be used in the public health realm, and also an education, which is absolutely important.
Sunny Hundal: And you said that Spain is a good model to follow. What is a bad model? Who is pushing a bad model across Europe, you think?
Cyrus Enger: I personally do not like the Dutch model, so what they have done in the Netherlands. Whilst is it was a country which was at the forefront of the move towards decriminalizing, and somehow legalizing cannabis in certain regions of the Netherlands, I myself would prefer to go away from Big Pharma and see that there’s social equity when it comes to the use of cannabis. And what we are proposing also in our country is the opportunity for users to grow their own plants. And as government, we have proposed here in Malta that each and every person can have 4 plants at the moment. So, that’s the initial direction we’re going to. I think it is a good start.
That said, I do believe that, obviously when you say that a person can grow his or her own plant, at the same time, there are a number of conditions that are being imposed through the white paper, speaking of conditions. And that means that not everyone would be able to grow the plants that they need within their households. So, one way to make sure that everyone that needs access, would be given access, is to create some kind of social enterprises that could… it’s the pooling of resources. And I think that is the way forward for my country, but I believe it is the best way forward. From the settings I have done on this topic, I really like what has happened in Spain, in its initial stages anyway. But Uruguay, I believe, is a very good example of what could be done.
Sunny Hundal: Aras, I’ll come to you now. Thanks for joining us. Tell us more about what you do, and also what you think is missing from the European Space in terms of social equity, or what you’d like to see.
Aras Azadian: Thanks for having me. So, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Avicanna. We’re a biopharmaceutical company that is focused on cannabinoid-based medicine. We work very closely with Al and his companies in the United States. My position on the social equity part, it’s a bit complex, but I think there’s a lot of learnings that we can take from the Canadian Federal Model, which was, in my opinion, done the best way. And also from the American State-by-State Model, which I don’t think was done the best way. And I think something that Al pointed out, which is the predatory investors.
I’m going to focus specifically on the opportunity side. And from an opportunity perspective because cannabis was a new industry for a lot of people, including myself, and Al who saw this an opportunity to do something better for patients or consumers or communities. However, in the earlier years, this was essentially hijacked by the capital markets, by the investors, by the hedge funds, by a lot of people for the new industry. And it was a quick way to make money, and if you look at the boards, and you look at the management teams, and you look at the executives and the owners of these companies, there’s very little diversity. So, I think that was one of the first challenges.
So, I think from a government perspective, there needs to be some assistance, there needs to be some support. We can treat this as if it’s a new industry, as a blank slate. If we do things properly and provide some sort of equal opportunity, whether that’s in the form of funds that are developed or put together to help entrepreneurs coming from more diverse backgrounds to get a chance, or whether that’s programs that are small, more small startup companies, something that I know Al and the guys who are applying for Viola. I think those are some of the solutions, but there certainly is a problem in Canada and the United States in the way that the industry has been built, essentially hijacked, from my perspective, by the capital market community. So, there’s a lot to learn from that. I think Europe, because it’s predominantly taking a medical approach, can take a much more regulated process in using the tax revenues and the tax dollars to put in place some of these support systems that will allow them to start smaller groups. And this can be used to support diverse groups.
My last comment, and I think coming from a diverse background myself, people like Al and I didn’t have as much support in the earlier years, but we did it. We built these vertical integrations, and we built companies and brands. However, I don’t think everyone has to necessarily follow the exact same pathway. I don’t think they need as many resources. I think for the more diverse communities, they can focus on maybe some of the ancillary products, some of the ancillary services or some of the ancillary technologies, because this industry is not just about what you grow and what you sell. And I think if people take a more innovative approach to providing services, or providing consulting, whether technology or app, whatever the case is, I think there’s a lot of ancillary areas that don’t require as many resources to enter the industry. So, I’ll pause there.
Sunny Hundal: Yeah. It’s funny, because I’m hearing a lot of criticism of Canada from a lot of different sources. I know, I spoke to Niamh earlier, she also is criticizing the Canadian approach. Al, so you think that the Canadian approach isn’t doing too well? You would criticize the Canadian approach too, or what do you think, they’re doing okay?
Al Harrington: I have no problems with Canada. I think everywhere has its issues. Once again, like I said, we’re pioneering the industry. And when you think about politicians, I think historically, they’re not entrepreneurs. So, they really don’t understand entrepreneurial pain. And they don’t really understand a lot of the legislation that they’re putting on these businesses, is really making it extremely hard to operate these businesses. When you think about just the United States, the tax structures and different things like that. It makes it very, very difficult, and especially when you’re already teetering the line, when you’re somewhere it’s Federally illegal, still.
And Canada, obviously they blew the doors off where it’s nationally legal, but from the outside looking in, it seemed very, very difficult to be able to run a really successful business when you can’t do traditional marketing and different things like that, when one of the important things about cannabis is trying to get it to the customer as fresh as you can. In Canada, you have to send it to a distribution center, and then the government distributes it. So, there’s a lot of different things. And when you think about that, like I don’t even know how you can even do social equity, when you have to have an environment like that to be able to actually participate.
So, like Aras said, I guess it’s really about kind of looking at the country or the State that you live in, and trying to figure out how you can participate. Because to his point, everybody can’t grow. Growing is going to become commoditized very soon. So, what are the ways can we have impact in the industry? And you have manufacturing. You have packaging. You have tech. You have testing. These are all things that in every State or every country is going to be needed, and can you figure out how you can participate in that way, once again, in an equitable way, so that you can participate in this booming industry.
Sunny Hundal: Sure. I mean, not that I want to go against Canada or anything, but I do want to bring in Niamh on this point about what you do think are the criticisms of the Canadian approach to bringing in legalization? I think you’re still on mute.
Niamh Eastwood: I agree with Aras and Al’s commentary on Canada, and generally have no problems with Canada, but I’m not a big fan of their cannabis regulatory framework. And it was very driven by kind of capital predatory approaches in Canada. There was no conversation about issues around social equity and participation in the market. Even more concerning was the lack of discussion that really focused on repairing those criminal justice harms that have happened. So, for example, in a lot of the States in the US, we saw the inclusion of an expungement of records approach, making sure that people who have been criminalized were no longer treated as criminals in what was not an illegal activity, which is absolutely right. But in Canada, that conversation didn’t even make part of the policy workup in developing the legal framework for cannabis regulation.
Even more concerning was the fact that there’s actually now more, as I understand, criminal laws related to cannabis than existed before regulation came into effect. And they also criminalize possession of cannabis outside of the regulated market. And I think that’s really problematic. And I think, again, from the US and some of the United States, I agree, again, with Aras that many of them have been very focused on capital opportunities and have really not focused on that kind of sort of social equity. But what I would say is every US state at least does not criminalize people for possession of cannabis outside of the legal market. So, if you’re in possession of cannabis from the illicit market, it is not an offense. It’s not a civil offense. It’s not criminal offense.
And that’s a really important part of the whole picture. It’s not just about regulation. It’s about making sure folks who are likely to be policed and harassed and arrested aren’t continued to be policed and harassed and arrested. And I think that’s a real problem in Canada. And then just the sheer cost of participating in the market, there are very few licenses, to enter the lottery, to get licenses. I think it’s a quarter of a million US dollars, or Canadian dollars. I mean, all of this just sets up for frankly rich White folks getting richer. And I didn’t get into drug policy reform for those purposes.
Sunny Hundal: So, I think there’s an interesting divide between people who are entrepreneurs and looking at this from a very entrepreneurial space, and people who want a more say less entrepreneurial approach. Like for example, in Spain, I mean, I lived in Spain, and actually none of the candidates there are even for profits. They are nonprofit enterprises. And the government doesn’t allow you to, not only doesn’t it allow you to advertise, but it doesn’t even allow you to make much money from working with cannabis. Well, exactly that’s what I’m thinking, Al. So, like, there’s an interesting different approach. I don’t know which way the UK is going, but certainly I’d be interested in knowing whether Europe is going to take the California model, or are we going to go down the Spain model, right? So, that’s something that actually Europe has not really thought about. We’re just talking about decriminalization, but what we’re not talking about, is whether it’s going to be an entrepreneurial approach? Or is it going to be a nonprofit approach? And, Cyrus, you said earlier that you wanted a nonprofit approach focused more on Spain. What would you say to people like Al who want to come in and make money from this?
Cyrus Enger: Well, it’s interesting, because we’re having a debate. We’re having that debate at the moment in my country, Malta. So, with regards to, for instance, medical cannabis, we have gone the entrepreneurial way, the profit-making way. In fact, we have a number of companies that have opened up in Malta during the past couple of years where they have invested here, they are operating from here, and they’re selling all across, not only the European Union, but globally. So, that is one of the rules that we have gone to when it comes to medical cannabis. And I invite out to actually look into that maybe invest also over here when it comes to the medical side of cannabis.
However, we are making a distinction when it comes to cannabis for personal use. And I think that over there, we must make sure, first of all, the first thing is, in the debate, the war on drugs has failed. I think what we have done as a planet during the past 50, 60 years was something that led us to the state we’re in today. And that has to be fought. I believe that we need a human rights approach when it comes to cannabis. And I believe that, first of all, we shouldn’t treat people who make use of cannabis as criminals. At the end of the day, they are harming no one. It is a personal choice that a person makes, and at the end of the day, affects only that particular person.
Now, moving on from that and replying to your question, I believe that anyone who wants to have access should have access to the plant at a reasonable price, and know exactly what the strand is, what the strain is, what there is in the actual plant that he is consuming. And I do agree that there should be a way in which the pooling of resources between the different people into a social enterprise could work. I’m not excluding the fact that there could be entrepreneurs. That is a good thing, and we do promote business. But at the same time, those people who would like to grow their own product, they should be able to do that in their homes. And if they live in an environment where they can’t grow their own plants, that they can pool their resources together in a social enterprise in order to have the plant. So, I think that the 2 concepts are not mutually exclusive. We can have both at the same time. But making sure that the individual can have the choice to decide which kind of product he wants.
Sunny Hundal: Aras, I’m going to come back to you, if you don’t mind. I’d love to know if you’ve done any lobbying in Europe, or how you see the European market developing, and what are you worried about in terms of whether it’s policy or whether it’s in terms of commercial side? What worries you and what excites you?
Aras Azadian: So, we’re a global company, and today, we operate in South America and North America, so, Canada and the United States, and Columbia. We’re expanding into Brazil and Mexico. And that’s been the predominant focus of the company. We have obviously looked at UK, Europe. We’re going to be launching one of our skincare lines in the UK over the next couple months. So, we are active. And what I’ve noticed from the European market, which is I think an important topic is it’s genuinely going to be medical. And there’s, of course, going to be personal use, but I don’t believe they’re going to take, at least most countries in the short term, are not going to be making an adult use legislation that, for example, Canada took.
And I think if we’re taking a medical only approach in the short term, it’s a very different discussion. Because on the adult side, you have consumers. You have the consumers who have a preference, and you have consumers who can drive a business. And Al has demonstrated at an essential leadership position that if you are authentic and you’re supporting a minority movement and social equity and you’re providing consumers with an option, they’re going to vote for your product, and they’re going to buy your product. And Viola has been very impressive with doing that.
On the medical side, the consumer is not picking what is the most socially equitable brand. They’re looking at the best medicine for them. So, it’s a very different approach. And on that front, it’s going to have to be some legislation, some support from either the government, and also from industry to provide, again, funding and support to allow companies that are coming from a socially equitable background, from a diversity background, a chance to compete.
And I don’t know, to be frank, we don’t know, what kind of support that is already in place for that equitable diversity in Europe. We’re not seeing much of it. And I would hate to see the same thing that happened in Canada to happen in Europe, where on the adult use side, we really don’t have any authentic socially equitable or minority brands. There’s a few that are coming out now that are more focused on the Aboriginals and the inclusion of Aboriginals in Canada. But Viola supporting the launch of Viola in Canada will be in my position, the real supporting factor.
So, I would hate to see that happen in Europe. I hope that on the medical side that they do form legislation. And if there is an adult use side, then I think you do need industry there to back up the consumer brands that will have a follow up.
Sunny Hundal: Well, Al, I want to ask you the same question. Are you focused on Europe? Are you thinking about expanding to Europe? And is there anything that excites you about what’s going on in Europe?
Al Harrington: Yeah, I think Europe is a very exciting. I’ve seen some other brands, like I think Cookies is now, have something, I think, in Spain or whatever. But for me, I think that the US is such a big bear to tackle. I’ve kind of decided that I think strategic partnerships is probably the fastest way to growth. And that’s why partnering with Aras is very strategic for us. We’re starting off in Canada, but you hear him, he’s breaking down international barriers pretty much every day, continuing to expand its footprint. And when you have 2 people who are online and we’re on the same page at the end of the day, as he expands, there’s opportunities for us to continue to expand together, and vice versa here in the United States.
So, I just feel like, I think I played in the NBA 16 years, 4 years high school, so 20 years of team sports. I know how valuable putting a strong team together is. You put a strong team together, you win championships. And when you win championships, everybody knows your name forever. And I think what we’re all working on here is legacy opportunities that will last long pass we’re gone, hopefully we’re setting up infrastructures and foundations for people to be able to thrive forever. And as we look at these new opportunities, I will probably look at it more through a partnership lens. And Aras is one of the guys that we’re working with right now, we’re just looking for whatever the best opportunities are for us as a company.
Sunny Hundal: Cyrus, coming back to you, what are you looking for in terms of entrepreneurs now? Like if an entrepreneur came to you and said, “I want to work in Malta in terms of expanding opportunities and reaching out,” do you worry that like big brands, or sorry, big corporate companies are coming in fast and taking over that space? How are you going to make sure that if Malta moves towards decriminalization, legalization, or regulation, maybe even sets a sort of a template for the rest of Europe?
Cyrus Enger: Yes. We have a very good opportunity to do that at the moment, being the current member state of the European Union that is actually working on this right now. So, we’re writing whatever will be happening in the future. And we know that we have a lot of eyes that are on us, seeing exactly what we’re doing, and how we’re going to do that. We have been, over the past few years, becoming leaders when it comes to civil rights. And in my opinion, as I said already, we should take a human rights approach when it comes to cannabis for personal use.
That said, I live in a country which is very much adapted towards having big companies moving to Malta and working from here to reach, not only Europe, but also Africa. We’re situated in the perfect position to do that. And I think that we are at the perfect place at the moment when it comes to legislation, as well to make sure that we are attractive to companies to come here. I think that, apart from obviously the beneficial tax system that we have, the fact that we’re in between 2 continents helps, and therefore there’s easy access to different markets. And also, the fact that as we speak, and as we’re currently legislating, we are a country that is moving out of COVID, getting herd immunity, and therefore being ready to, and safe to go to business once again. I think that that’s a good thing.
Now, apart from that, I think that the legislation that we’re looking at when it comes to cannabis for personal use, at the end of the day, no big company will come to Malta to supply the local market. It’s too small, we’re only 450,000 people. And therefore, no big company can see huge profits from such a small place. But I think this would be the right place, with the right regulations, to reach the rest of Europe. And our policy can then move on and flow towards other member states. We have seen this happening already with Malta on civil rights, then spilling over to other member states. And I think that what we’re currently doing with cannabis can have that impact as well. As I said, as a country, we’re very much open for business. And we look forward to having such big companies coming and working from here. However, I understand that the market is too small.
Sunny Hundal: Right. The market is, I agree with that. But given that you’re still in the European Union, and then you have transportation of goods to other parts of Europe very easily, and all the rest of it. It does make it actually quite a good launch base for companies to go to Malta, set up sort of an operation there as a way to then go across Europe. But I go back to the question, how are you going to make sure that companies coming to Malta have a social equity angle, or certainly a strong social equity led sort of approach to this?
Cyrus Enger: From my end, that is what I’m advocating to governments to do. At the end of the day, we need those companies that have a social equity perspective, working in the way that they work. It is important for us, and I’m sure that it is important for this socialist government. At the end of the day they looks towards social equity in everything that we do. So, we are working with Malta Enterprise. The government is working with Malta Enterprise to ensure that, even those companies that are interested in investing and launching their business here in Malta to reach the rest of Europe, at the end of the day, have that social perspective in place. It is something that we do naturally as a country, I believe. And we need to have regulations that incentivize business to move here, but also incentivize business to, at the end of the day, make it profitable for business to be socially equitable. And I think that that is the right formula to have when it comes to attracting business here.
Sunny Hundal: Okay. Niamh, I’ll put that to you then. If you were advising the government of Malta and saying, “Okay, you guys are going to look to legalize cannabis,” what sort of laws or regulations would you like to see in place to make sure that there is a strong social equity angle to this space?
Niamh Eastwood: So, I think it’s about looking at how the market operates, and how we prioritize participatory opportunities within the market for people who have been involved in illicit trade, for example. So, like, I think we have to accept that illicit trade does bring a source of income to some of the most deprived communities in our countries. And if we take that away from those communities, we will leave them in further, more entrenched deprivation. And so, how do we think about bringing that expertise? And I think Al spoke earlier on, on how you’re creating a new market where a lot of traditional industry doesn’t know the high tunes. They don’t know how to grow cannabis really well. They don’t have that experience. So, how do we transition these folks in who have less experience?
And, for example, that’s been done in Jamaica. There are some laws there around prioritizing farmers in Jamaica to participate in the medical market there. So, I don’t think that’s at heart. And what you can do practically is say, “Alright, within our legislation, so many percentage of our licenses, so much of a certain percentage of licenses will go to people who have criminal records, who live in communities that have been over policed around drug laws.” So, there’s ways that we can do that. We make sure, absolutely, as Al said, that they have the resources and the skills and the support to do that. So, it’s about loans, it’s about investment, it’s about helping people work out how to navigate the tax system. It’s, do you have good human resources policies in place? So, it’s about making sure we have that kind of aura of support in order to maximize participation from folks who have been, as I say, over criminalized, and over policed.
And also too, Aras brought up the different points within the market that people can participate in. It’s not just about selling and growing. Massachusetts, for example, have just developed a whole stream of work or ride delivery licenses. And that’s really going to focus in on providing opportunities where there’s a lack of unemployment and a lack of opportunity. And that’s not to say that this should be the only opportunity for these communities, it’s just that that opportunity shouldn’t be removed. And then when we look at taxation, taxation should be investing in those communities that have suffered so much at the hands of drug prohibition. Let’s give people opportunities to engage in other sectors in our society. It’s not just about getting those who have been involved in the illicit market into the licit, it’s like getting them into all industries.
So, there’s a whole raft of kind of practical things that legislation could do and regulations could do in order to make sure that that participation happens. Most importantly, I think you have folks who have been impacted participating in those regulatory frameworks. So, they are on those regulation boards. They are making those laws. They are advocating and understanding what communities need.
Sunny Hundal: Al, I wanted to come back to you and just ask you one thing. What States are doing stuff that you don’t like? Because all the States have different laws, and you must be looking at some States and being like, “You guys are doing this badly. I don’t like what you’re doing here.” Which State you think that is?
Al Harrington: I mean, the one that I pick up on a lot of things, is where I live is California. I think that the California program has really been a disaster. Now, I’m going to Oak State with definitely Los Angeles. They still haven’t issued any of the social equity licenses, and this program started over 4 or 5 years ago. And the impact is just as bad as the impact of the war on drugs on these people. I mean, people have sacrificed, they mortgaged their homes, they did all kinds of things to be able to hold real estate for the last 4 years. And a lot of them have fallen by the wayside, because they just weren’t able to continue to pay rent, that they never knew when they were actually going to be able to get a license.
I think part of their due diligence process in regards to being able to sniff out the predatory contracts, because I know for a fact that there were companies that were literally standing in front of VAs in different places like that, asking people, “Hey, you want to make $3,000 a month? Okay, let me use you as my social equity applicant,” and different things like that. And then some States here in the United States still haven’t even adapted any type of social equity. So, when you think about like all the awareness we’re bringing around it, that some States still haven’t even started to even think about addressing it is just still a crime.
Sunny Hundal: Name and shame, Al, name and shame. Who’s not doing that?
Aras Azadian: A lot of these markets. I mean some of them are now starting to think about it now, like Colorado. But Colorado is a 10-year-old industry. But it’s just I think, overall, we would love to get to the point where we’re kind of operating under somewhat of the same laws, and not be so different from State to State. Because I think it will make it a lot easier for the multi-state operator, someone like myself, and then for these people that are able to get the license and have relationships with other people, that they can start to build something that could become a lot bigger than what it is for just one single individual license holder.
So, yeah, I just think that the overall approach to social equity just needs to be looked at again. But I think that when they do it this time, I think that social equity people, Black people in particular need to be in the room. And before you go and make a rule about how things can be impacted for Black people, and you’re not Black, I just feel like, I mean, what are we talking about? And I talked about that a lot because it just makes no sense. I’m like, it’s a room full of… and I’m not raising anything, but if a roomful of White people saying how something should look for a community of people that they’ve never been around, or ever had to deal with, there’s a huge problem with that.
So, I think that that’s one of the first things that they can do, is put people in there that they’re trying to affect, have them in the room giving their opinion, so that when these things do roll out, they make sense, and they are going to put people in a position to be successful.
Sunny Hundal: Right, right. Okay, I’m going to get the last final words quickly, if we can do like closing thoughts, Aras and Cyrus, just… or Aras actually, yeah, you’ve spoken a lot less than others. Just give us your final thoughts on what we need to do right now in terms of social equity for cannabis across Europe, and then we need to close off, I think.
Aras Azadian: Thanks for that. I would say just to wrap up, we need to learn from, again, the mistakes in Canada, learn from the mistakes in the US. I mean, governance should bring on advisors, such as Al to give them perspective on all of this. And I think you need to bring in the experts for it. But I go back to a very utopian concept of this is a new industry. We have a blank slate. Let’s do it right. Let’s look at it from the right perspectives, get the right advice, write the correct legislation, and build incubation systems and funding and resources so we can do this right. It’s very rare for us at this stage of human civilization to get such an opportunity to have such an impactful industry start from scratch. This is the right moment, and I won’t change the topic and discuss environmental sustainability and all that stuff, but all that can be considered. We can do this right. And we can learn from everything that people like Al and I have gone through, and I think we should be part of that process, the advice. I think I would leave it there.
Sunny Hundal: That’s good. And Cyrus, 30 seconds?
Cyrus Enger: I’ll continue with what I said. We have 2 routes that have already taken place in different countries. We can learn from both routes to find a new way of how to do this. And I think that having a balance and knowing exactly what we can do, because now we have learned from others. I think we’re at the right spot at this moment in time to have that third way of doing things.
Sunny Hundal: Europeans love the third way. Thanks so much to the panel, Niamh, Al, Cyrus and Aras for joining me. My name is Sunny Hundal. And thank you Prohibition Partners for hosting this discussion.
Al Harrington: Bye, everybody.
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The Future of Social Equity and Social Justice in Europe
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