Cannabis Equity

Cannabis Equity in Our Community - A Racial Equity Toolkit Project

Are you interested in addressing inequities in cannabis business opportunities in our community? We are. We are the City of Seattle's Finance and Administrative Services Department's (FAS) racial equity project team on Equity in Cannabis Business Licensing.  

FAS regulates cannabis businesses operating in Seattle through the marijuana business license. Ownership of the licensed cannabis businesses is not reflective of Seattle's diverse demographics. Mirrored in other cities and states, this disparity is a national trend. Our team formed to learn the causes of the disparity through stakeholder engagements and research, to develop recommendations to address disproportionate ownership of Seattle cannabis businesses and report back to our stakeholders.  

Our largest stakeholder engagement has been the Cannabis Equity in Our Community forum, Feb. 22, 2020. Held at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District of Seattle, over 100 community, industry and government employees attended. Our speakers included representatives from the City of Seattle, the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB). Attendees had the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. 

Community Survey Results

The results of the City's survey on cannabis equity in our community are now available. A survey was conducted between June 1 and Sept. 1, 2020. The survey was shared with community members and stakeholders of the Cannabis Equity in Our Community project through an email list and community members. The survey was available online and on paper in four languages: Amharic, English, Oromo and Spanish. We received a total of 123 responses, 19 on paper and 104 online. Details of the survey responses are here.

Municipal Court Data

Our interactive data chart shows marijuana violations filed with the Seattle Municipal Court by year, residential zip code, race, and gender from January 1996 to August of 2019. We discuss the contributing factors.

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Justice's nationwide crackdown on drugs, highlighted by its "Weed and Seed strategy," criminalized Blacks at a higher rate than whites. The goals of the Weed and Seed program were intended to control violent crime, drug trafficking, and drug related crime in designated "high crime neighborhoods" and provide a safe environment free of crime use and drug use for residents. The strategy was to bring together federal, state and local enforcement agencies, social service providers, representatives from the public and private sectors, prosecutors, business owners, and neighborhood residents under a shared goal of weeding out violent crime and gang activity while seeding social services and economic revitalization.

Our data set starts in 1996. From 1996 to 1999, the data shows that Black people were cited 299 times for marijuana related violations, representing 34% of marijuana related arrests. During the same time, white people were cited 522 times for marijuana related violations, representing 59% of marijuana-related violations. On the surface, it appears that white people received more marijuana related citations than Black people. That is true if you only focus on the numbers without looking at Seattle's population. The disparity lies with the disproportionate number of Black people being criminalized. U.S. Census data in 1990 shows 19,702 or 8.3% of the population in Seattle was Black. The population of white people in 1990 was 192,391 or 81% of the total population.

Looking at our interactive chart of marijuana related violations from 1996 -1999. Divide the 522 violations by white people by the population of white people 192,391. The percentage of white people cited was .0027%. Then divide the 299 violations by Black people by the population of black people 19,702. The percentage of Black people cited was .015%. Reports from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) show that white and Black people used marijuana in the 1990's at the same rate, yet Black people are far more likely to be charged with marijuana related offenses.

In 2000, President George H.W. Bush's administration allocated more money toward the War on Drugs than any other president. He created the "drug czar" position with a focus on marijuana. Bush militarized domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush's term, there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year, mostly for nonviolent drug law enforcements, often misdemeanors and marijuana related offenses. This federal emphasis on the War on Drugs infiltrated to the local level and disproportionately criminalized blacks.

On Nov. 6, 2012, Washington state voters passed Initiative 502 making Washington state one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana possession and sales along with Colorado.

Following the passage of Initiative 502, possession of small amounts of marijuana was legalized and the charges filed with Seattle Municipal Court is reflective. Charges shown from 2013 on are for misdemeanors, primarily for open public consumption of marijuana.

The data set shown is using estimated U.S. Census data for 2019 population numbers in Seattle (The number of Black people living in Seattle is estimated to be similar to the 2010 figures). The lack of growth in the Black population during this time is attributed to gentrification.

Looking at our interactive chart of charges filed from 2013-2019. Following the passage of Initiative 502; 1,023 white people were cited for marijuana related offenses during this period. The percentage of white people cited in Seattle represented 53% of the total marijuana charges by race. This does not convey the whole picture. The population of white people in Seattle in 2019 was estimated at 493,218. The percentage of white people cited was .002% of the white population. During this same time, 622 Black people were cited for marijuana related offenses. The percentage of Black people cited in Seattle was 32% of the total marijuana charges by race. The population of Black people in Seattle in 2019 was estimated at 51,000. The percentage of Black people cited was .013% of the Black population. Again, reports from the ACLU shows that both white and Black people used marijuana in the 2000-2019 at the same rate, yet Black people are far more likely to be charged with marijuana related offenses.

Despite Washington state legalizing marijuana for recreational use and sale in 2012, there continues to be a gross racial disparity between Black people in Seattle who continue to be criminalized for marijuana related violations than white people.

Graph showing cannabis ratios in court cases

Themes from Community Forum 

We identified five reoccurring themes from attendees' questions and feedback.  

Forum Themes

1. Community: The communities most impacted by the inequitable application of the prior marijuana laws should be those who receive the assistance/benefits from the equity efforts.

2. Accurate data collection: Data collection should be based upon where the impacted communities currently reside. Do not base data collection on geographic locations. The geographic locations previously impacted no longer accurately represent the impacted individuals as they have moved to other geographic areas due to effects of gentrification and higher living costs.

3. Monetary support: How much financial support will be put into the community in the form of access to banking, startup money, business training? How does this contrast to revenue brought into the City by marijuana taxes and fees with cost to administer the program?

4. Include a marginalized group currently being omitted: the medical marijuana community. The medical marijuana patient community is not acknowledged, or data counted in the marginalized groups. Numerous medical marijuana access points existing before I-502 were closed as a result of not receiving recreational marijuana licenses through the license lottery. They were further overlooked when medical marijuana licenses were issued only to existing recreational stores. *

5. Legal concerns: Is a racial equity program going to be viable given the laws against preference based on race? Is the City/State prepared to fight this legal battle? *Side note: Prior to I-502 there was a significant representation of marginalized community members in the medical marijuana businesses. This went away with the implementation of I-502 and Senate Bill 5052.  

Did you miss the Feb. 22 Cannabis Equity in Our Community forum? Seattle Channel has provided a recording of the event here.  

Other Ideas for Coordination and Engaging Our Community

The City is also seeking ways to reach stakeholders who may not have attended the forum but have interest in this issue or has been impacted by historic marijuana enforcement. Any ideas you may have for engaging our communities will be helpful. Please reach out to us (marijuana@seattle.gov) if you have ideas for how:

  • The City can best reach other stakeholders
  • Ideas for community or association meetings the City's racial equity toolkit team on cannabis licensing can attend either virtually or in-person (when allowed), present and engage with other attendees.  

Preliminary Report

Review our preliminary report which explores other jurisdictions' cannabis-related equity policies to determine the best options and practices for addressing past harm due to historical marijuana enforcement.  

House Bill 2870 - Marijuana Social Equity Program  

House Bill 2870 effective June 11, 2020. The new state law establishes a Marijuana Social Equity Program, a Technical Assistance Competitive Grant Program and a legislative task force on social equity in marijuana. The purpose of the task force is to make recommendations to the WSLCB including establishing a social equity program for the issuance and reissuance of existing retail marijuana licenses, and to advise the governor and the legislature on policies that will help development of a marijuana social equity program. The task force must submit a final report to the legislature by Dec. 1, 2020. A public comment period will be provided at every task force meeting. Some individuals may participate in an advisory capacity. There is no schedule yet of task force meetings. If you are interested in providing comment at future task force hearings please send an email to marijuana@seattle.gov. When task force meeting schedules are available, you will receive an email with a link to more information.