Marlena and Noah Fishman and their children at their cannabis farm in Stowe, Vermont. (Courtesy of Zenbarn)
It was 2011 when Devin Alexander was arrested for possessing marijuana. He was a senior in high school, and almost instantly his plans to join the U.S. Air Force went up in smoke.
More than a decade later, three letters precede Alexander’s name: CEO, of a cannabis delivery company based in Newton, Massachusetts. He was a graduate of the state’s first Social Equity Program cohort, intended to create pathways for those most impacted by the War on Drugs to launch careers in the very same, now-legal industry.
Across the border in New Hampshire, there are countless individuals like Alexander – people whose lives have been interrupted and their plans thwarted by a drug that 23 states have since legalized.
Using intentional programs and policy decisions, many states are trying to empower those individuals to cash in on the same commodity that entangled them in the criminal justice system.
But under a cannabis retail sales model Gov. Chris Sununu says is the only one he will support, there aren’t any explicit equity provisions for a future industry in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire is the only state in New England that hasn’t legalized marijuana, and several attempts to do so this legislative session have failed once again. In a last-minute interjection in May, Sununu said he would approve a sales model operated by the state – much like its current monopoly on liquor. Under his endorsed model, the state would also control all messaging around the drug.
It would be the first state-run cannabis market in the nation, if that’s the route New Hampshire decides to go. And while there are plenty of opinions about that – both for and against – stakeholders say it’s clear that no matter what sales model the Granite State might pursue, there doesn’t appear to be much interest in any kind of social equity or restorative and economic justice framework.
Meanwhile, data from 2010 to 2018 shows Black people in New Hampshire were four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than their white counterparts, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report. That likelihood varies from county to county, the report showed. Black people in Cheshire County were 13 times more likely, the highest disproportionality in the state.
While New Hampshire decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and allows qualifying people to annul past criminal records, advocates for legalization say those are small drops in the bucket to remedy the harm done to communities over decades.
“Legalization is built on the backs of people who have been impacted by the War on Drugs,” said Alexander, who has been named the Massachusetts Cannabis Activist of the Year. “Those people should be first in line to receive the benefits.”
Anthony Poore, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity, feels lawmakers – majority white and some of the oldest in the country – don’t understand the nuances of the state’s growing communities of color. That reverberates into policy, like legalizing cannabis and deciding how it will be sold.
“Why would people be looking at this issue of restorative justice and access to equitable economies for our communities of color when they don’t believe we exist, and if we do, it’s in such small numbers we don’t matter anyway?” Poore said.
What Vermont and Massachusetts did
From the beginning of its retail cannabis sales, Vermont put economic justice at the center. Today, some who were once punished for cannabis are now profiting from it.
For Marlena Fishman, cannabis has always had a place in her adult life. But it wasn’t until after meeting her husband, Noah, that she turned it into a business. Marlena and Noah met as activists in Washington, D.C., but when they moved to Vermont, they transitioned to farming. They started with a community garden and then expanded to growing vegetables and cannabidiol – a legal oil known as CBD – and opening a farm-to-table restaurant.
At the time, retail sales had not yet started in Vermont. The state legalized the use and possession of cannabis in 2018, but did not authorize regulated sales until 2022. But the Fishmans were ready.
Today, the couple has expanded their CBD store into a full growing operation and dispensary, with two storefronts. The farm that began with vegetables now grows and sells dozens of strains of cannabis flowers, tinctures, pre-rolls, edibles, and topicals. They host dinners, concerts, and cannabis industry socials.
Marlena has extended her expertise to help other entrepreneurs of color in the state, helping co-found the Cannabis Generation Equity Fund with the Pennywise Foundation, an initiative to provide training, education, and financial support for people of color entering the cannabis business.
“One of the main roadblocks to more of us accessing this industry is fear,” she said. “And it’s fear within the community – fear from the people that look like me and who the War on Drugs targeted.”
Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board allows residents to apply for growing or retail licenses as a “social equity applicant,” meaning they are either Black or Hispanic, come from a community “disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition,” were incarcerated for a cannabis offense, or all three.
Those applicants receive discounted license fees in the first five years of their business. And they can take advantage of another source of aid, the Cannabis Business Development Fund, a $500,000 state-funded initiative to provide low-interest loans and grant funding to social equity applicants.
The state has also placed limits on the number of licenses any one business can hold, seeking to keep retailers and growers small and local.
The result: Vermont’s burgeoning cannabis market is full of small, innovative, and diverse growers and sellers, and the cannabis products are more niche – akin to craft beer breweries, argues Tim Egan, a prominent cannabis legalization advocate in New Hampshire. Egan, a former Democratic New Hampshire state representative, teaches a course at Vermont’s Castleton University that helps entrepreneurs of color learn techniques to allow them to set up their businesses effectively.
Fishman agrees that Vermont’s efforts have been effective. The state has a number of Black-owned cannabis farms and retail outlets, she said, even if they still make up a relatively small share.
“It’s as diverse as Vermont is, if you will,” she quipped.
Ahead of Vermont’s go at equity was Massachusetts, which in January surpassed $4 billion in total adult-use sales. Its equity rollout was more complicated.
The Bay State made national headlines in 2018 when it became the first state to mandate that equity be part of the framework for its retail cannabis market. The intent was for people and communities most impacted by historical enforcement to be first in line to reap the benefits of the new industry.
The state created a Social Equity Program, where qualifying participants receive free education, technical assistance, and training. A certified “economic empowerment” status gives priority licensing review to qualifying applicants. Both programs are administered by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, the central body overseeing adult-use and medical marijuana.
But those efforts proved to be not enough: numbers showed the Bay State’s cannabis industry was still shaping up to be largely white and male, and dominated by big business.
Many small entrepreneurs from disproportionately impacted communities said capital remains the biggest barrier for them. As a result, Massachusetts lawmakers last August created a trust fund to provide money to social equity entrepreneurs – funded in part by the state’s marijuana excise tax and donations from larger companies, which are required to help improve industry equity as a provision of their licenses.
Alexander, 29, originally from Quincy, Massachusetts, said he wasn’t alone in his inner circle in terms of a marijuana arrest impacting his life. “A whole bunch” of family members have also faced drug crimes.
He started working at a dispensary in his hometown where he became engulfed in the cannabis world, he said. Alexander was inspired to join the Social Equity Program in 2019, which ultimately put him on a pathway to co-founding Rolling Releaf, a same-day delivery business serving Greater Boston that opened this past spring.
Before launching its marijuana delivery license, the state of Massachusetts decided the opportunity would be available only to social equity applicants for a certain number of years, allowing smaller and more diverse businesses to gain a footing.
“What made delivery so attractive to us was the exclusive window that they gave it,” Alexander said.
None of this happened overnight for Alexander, but rather, over three years. It was “tough,” he said, “getting to the point where we are now.” But it likely would have been even harder without the intentional opportunities created by the state.
“You need to have equity provisions,” he said. “You need to have those mechanisms in place.”
What happened in New Hampshire this year
Some advocates in New Hampshire have expressed interest in following Vermont and Massachusetts and adding equity measures to a Granite State cannabis bill. But the Legislature has resisted that effort.
In 2022, an array of interest groups spent months collaborating on a grand agreement. At the table were Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, the Marijuana Policy Project, the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, and Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of New Hampshire, a medical marijuana nonprofit.
What emerged was a template for how to allow the possession, regulation, and taxation of legal cannabis in the state – while making equity for the communities most impacted part of the equation. The coalition’s framework, released last December, included the creation of a “Cannabis Business Development Fund” that would set aside some of the taxes and fees collected by the state “to foster cannabis business ownership by veterans, small farmers, and those most impacted by prohibition.”
The proposed fund would have provided smaller growers start-up funding, training, and technical assistance as they sought to enter the market, the framework stated. And the proposed legislation would have also devoted 10 percent of all tax revenue toward “justice reinvestment,” which would allow the state to provide “jobs training, reentry, literacy training, legal aid, and youth services” for those who had been impacted by legalization.
But when the bill based on that framework emerged in January, lawmakers removed most of the proposed equity provisions – including the development fund. That final bill, House Bill 639, was the main vehicle for cannabis legalization in 2023, and was co-sponsored by both Republican House Majority Leader Jason Osborne and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm.
And when advocates later tried to add an amendment to the bill to shield residents with cannabis-related criminal records from being denied retail licenses, House lawmakers resisted. The House Commerce Committee voted down that amendment, with Chairman John Hunt, a Rindge Republican, arguing that it was not relevant to legalization.
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization, said: “It does not appear that the full Legislature has an appetite for the type of social equity licensing and community reinvestment many blue states have enacted.”
Meanwhile, Sununu’s stated preference for a state-run model has frustrated some legalization advocates, who say it cuts off the possibility of economic justice for impacted communities by denying them the ability to start businesses. Private growers and processors could, advocates have noted, but the state would likely be their only customer, and the same entity that regulates them.
“It goes back to the overarching question of who should benefit economically from cannabis legalization,” said Matt Simon, director of public and government relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers and a longtime Granite State legalization proponent.
Sununu has said a state-controlled retail system is the only one to ensure the market is safe.
“…This path helps to keep substances away from kids by ensuring the State of New Hampshire retains control of marketing, sales, and distribution,” he said in a statement in May.
‘Cannabis prohibition is ruining lives every day’
A former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner said equity can still be built into a state-run model, what she calls a “public option.”
Shaleen Title previously served as an inaugural member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission, and today is the founder and director of Parabola Center, a nonprofit think tank of legal professionals and drug policy experts. She’s also a founding member of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition.
Title said she is “very much in favor” of seeing a state try out a public option model, and that New Hampshire could be the first given its “functioning, smooth, long history with liquor.”
“The trend has been that each generation of states that legalizes has been able to incorporate more equity,” Title said. “Massachusetts and California did better than Colorado and Washington. And New York and Vermont are trying even more robust approaches. And so as part of that experimentation where we haven’t found anything totally successful yet in terms of justice and equity, it certainly makes sense to try a state-run approach.”
A state-run model could also include tax revenue reinvestment, she said. Some states, like New Jersey and Illinois, are devoting significant percentages of tax revenue to communities harmed by marijuana enforcement. Title noted this is something “even the majority of Republicans support,” according to recent polls.
Title said she’s also intrigued by Sununu’s support of state-controlled messaging around marijuana. As the industry grows nationally, she expects to see advertising aimed at maximizing profits, just as the big pharma, alcohol, and tobacco industries have done in the past.
“At the same time, state and federal governments have a very bad reputation for lying about drugs, so there’s a lot of work they have to do in terms of making sure the messaging is effective and true,” Title said. “Those best practices are there. They can definitely tell the truth and use smart education.”
But whether New Hampshire will even get to that point is still up in the air. Many advocates say they’re willing to sacrifice their desired sales model just to see legalization come to fruition.
“State-run stores are far from our preferred approach,” O’Keefe said. “But cannabis prohibition is ruining lives every day, and it urgently needs to be replaced by legalization for adults with sensible regulation.”
Frank Knaack, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, agreed, saying that while the ACLU would have preferred equity measures in the bill this year, its No. 1 priority was to pass something to stop people from being arrested for cannabis use and possession. After that, advocates could work toward economic justice and equity, he said.
“We always just viewed this as a first step,” Knaack said of the initial bill. “We are in this for the long haul.”
Across the border in Massachusetts, Alexander is looking at New Hampshire and shaking his head.
“New Hampshire’s state motto is Live Free or Die,” he said. “You can ride a motorcycle without a helmet and still shoot off bottle rockets. The fact that they are the last state in New England to legalize, it’s just crazy to me.”
New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.
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