Oakland’s Marijuana Equity Permit Program: An On the Ground Update

Oakland cannabis regulationsTuesday night, in a continuation of more than ten months of contentious debate and revisions, the Oakland City Council revisited and reargued the terms of its yet-to-be-implemented Equity Permit program for cannabis businesses. The program aims to address inequity in the local cannabis industry by prioritizing permit issuance to those with roots in certain identified Oakland neighborhoods that have been historically impacted by disproportionate drug law enforcement, and to members of the Oakland community that have been arrested and convicted of cannabis crimes in Oakland in the last 20 years. The law moves qualifying Equity Applicants to the front of the cannabis permitting line, and it also creates access to approximately $3.4 million in earmarked interest-free business loans and other assistance.

The law was first introduced in May 2016, but in response to community concern about how it might affect the local economy, the City Council commissioned an extensive race and equity analysis of medical cannabis regulations and scheduled another vote for early 2017. Among the most jarring of the City Council’s findings was that over the past 20 years, African Americans, particularly those living within certain Oakland police beats, have been dramatically and consistently overrepresented in cannabis-related arrests as, reaching as high as 90% of all cannabis arrests in the late nineties.

Two weeks ago, the Oakland City Council approved a last-minute amendment to the program mandating that any general (non-Equity) applicant must have lived in Oakland for at least three years to get a cannabis business permit. Because Equity Applicants must already demonstrate residency and a past connection with Oakland, this amendment would have effectively placed a residency restriction on all new or existing cannabis businesses. After a motion passed 6-2 Tuesday night removing the residency requirement for general applicants, the current version (which still requires another Council vote to become law) provides that, when issuing permits for any kind of cannabis business, the City must give half (i.e. maintain a 1-to-1 ratio) of all permits issued in its initial issuance phase to “Equity Applicants,” defined as Oakland residents with an annual income at or less than 80% of the City average and who either lived in certain defined Oakland police beats for 10 of the last 20 years, or who have been convicted of a cannabis crime committed in Oakland within the last 20 years. Tuesday night’s motion also requires dispensary staff be at least 50% Oakland residents with at least half of those residents from areas identified as having high unemployment or low household incomes.

Though Oakland’s Equity Permit program has garnered praise for its stated policies and goals, it also has generated controversy—as illustrated by the lively hearing Tuesday night—particularly due to its now-withdrawn general residency requirement. Some questioned its efficacy in achieving the City’s goals, while others argued that it would benefit the City by requiring Oakland cannabis business permits go only to those living in Oakland. The proposed residency requirement would have jeopardized any existing cannabis businesses that could not meet the residency requirement, regardless of how many jobs or how much tax revenue those entities were contributing to the local economy.

Though it is unclear what the ordinance will look like in its final form, and though the residency requirements were relaxed by Tuesday night’s revision, a residency requirement remains for Equity Applicants and dispensary staff. Because the City of Oakland intends to issue only eight cannabis dispensary licenses per year (excluding delivery-only operations), an aggrieved party may challenge the ordinance for favoring longtime residents of certain Oakland neighborhoods at the expense of newer Oakland residents and those living in other neighborhoods, or even for favoring Oaklanders over out-of-towners. Some who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting explained how, despite having lived all of their lives in Oakland, but not in one of the identified neighborhoods or having lived in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood but not for long enough or having been forced to move out of Oakland after many years because of gentrification, they would not qualify as Equity Applicants. It is these sorts of presumably unintended consequences of the residency requirements that could lead to the program getting bogged down in legal challenges.

The Equity Permit Program’s express preference for Oakland residents over out-of-towners, as an element of its greater approach to addressing longstanding systemic racial disparity in cannabis enforcement, raises some important legal issues. We have previously touched on the constitutionality of residency requirements and the potential difficulties presented by California’s own residency requirement in Proposition 64, such as access to funding from out-of-state investors—a challenge that has been somewhat ameliorated by Oakland withdrawing its requirement that majority ownership and control cannabis permittees must go strictly to City residents.

The Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Dormant Commerce Clause generally prevent states from discriminating against residents of other states. When a state or local government enacts legislation that facially discriminates against nonresidents, reviewing courts will ask whether the government has a “substantial reason” for the difference in treatment, and whether the law is “closely related” to that rationale. But because cannabis is federally illegal, constitutional claims would likely be a stretch.

As California rolls out its new regulations under the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), it will be important to watch how those laws address a state licensee’s right to do business within the state, and how local regulations interact with state law. Though the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA) requires local government approval before a state license can issue, the AUMA does not, but the AUMA does allow localities to enact their own regulations so long as they do not conflict with state law. It remains uncertain how the AUMA will apply to a state-licensed cannabis entity seeking to conduct business in Oakland if that entity is unable to obtain a business license from the Oakland because of its residency requirements. We will be tracking the roll out of California’s new regulations and how the interplay between the state and localities like Oakland will affect cannabis businesses and the state’s soon to be massive regulated cannabis economy.

Editor’s Note: Daniel recently joined our firm as an attorney in our San Francisco office, where he will be focusing on mostly California cannabis real estate and dispute resolution issues.

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