Marijuana social equity: Seeds planted but will they grow?

Full Screen
1 / 8

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Sarah Woodson poses for a portrait in Denver on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Woodson, the executive director of the advocacy group The Color of Cannabis, runs a 10-week business course to help students navigate Colorado's social equity application process and to connect them with marijuana industry leaders. Colorado's social equity program is aimed at correcting past wrongs from the war on drugs, which disproportionately affected minorities. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

DENVER – Terrence Hewing was working for a package delivery company in 2007 when police approached his cargo van in suburban Denver. He was early for a pickup, and someone out for a walk called authorities after seeing him napping in the driver’s seat.

Officers found about a pound of marijuana inside the vehicle. That led to a couple of days in jail, thousands of dollars in legal fees and a felony conviction for drug possession. Hewing lost his job and, because of his criminal record, for years struggled to find housing and a stable, well-paying career.

“I felt like I was in a certain box in society," he said. “There’s people that don’t have felonies and people that do. It makes you almost feel kind of outcast.”

Hewing, 39, recently became one of only a few Black entrepreneurs to receive a business license in Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry. His goal is to run a company that delivers the very substance that stained his record.

His opportunity is the result of personal ambition paired with Colorado’s effort to right past wrongs from the war on drugs.

Hewing will enter the market as a so-called social equity operator, licensed under a program that provides reduced fees and mentoring to encourage the growth of new businesses, especially for Black people arrested or imprisoned for marijuana offenses.

Social equity has been a selling point for marijuana legalization in many states. New York, which last month broadly legalized cannabis use, has set a goal of getting 50% of licenses to minorities and other social equity applicants.

But so far the goals have far outstripped realities, partly due to legal entanglements as states look to broaden diversity in cannabis boardrooms, retail shops, production plants and greenhouses.