4/20 policy summit on Capitol Hill seeks to bring equity to the cannabis industry

“Cannabis policy reform, it's a criminal justice issue. It's a social justice issue," said Caroline Phillips, founder of the National Cannabis Festival and National Cannabis Policy Summit.

A Black woman-founded cannabis policy summit on 4/20, the holiday designated for cannabis culture, is bringing together lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about equity and legislative reform for a fast-growing – and mostly white – industry.

Hundreds attended the “The Congressional Summit” hosted by the National Cannabis Policy Summit on Thursday to hear from a bipartisan group of Congress members, advocates and business leaders on a range of cannabis-related policies from expungement and banking to social equity and paths to federal legalization. 

Activists from DC Marijuana Justice (DCMJ) wave flags during a rally on Oct. 8, 2019, on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to demand Congress pass cannabis reform legislation. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Capitol Hill lawmakers participating in the summit include Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer; Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, who discussed how federal cannabis policy impacts the majority Black and brown city of D.C.; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-CA., who delivered video remarks, among other speakers.

Caroline Phillips organized the annual summit as a precursor to the National Cannabis Festival on April 22. Phillips, who founded the festival seven years ago, told theGrio she created the event and policy summit to shine a light on how cannabis prohibition disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. 

“I noticed when cannabis was becoming legal in D.C., the conversation was around the green rush, and all of these big conferences were coming to town and charging people $700,000 to come in and gain access to experts in the cannabis space and secrets to big business,” recalled Phillips. 

“That just really rubbed me the wrong way,” she added.

Phillips, who previously worked in the human rights space, acknowledged that even as the cannabis industry continues to grow, “the War on Drugs is still alive.” She noted that just a half mile from where this year’s festival is held, “there are Black and brown men and women who are sitting there on nonviolent drug offenses.” 

She continued: “Cannabis policy reform is a criminal justice issue. It’s a social justice issue.”

That is why the cannabis advocate hopes this year’s policy summit will continue to foster dialogue about ways Capitol Hill can reform cannabis policy and correct wrongs that have damaged communities of color for generations.

Caroline Phillips, founder of the National Cannabis Festival & National Cannabis Festival Summit, speaks onstage during the National Cannabis Festival Summit on April 22, 2022, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brian Stukes/Getty Images)

To date, 21 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and an additional 18 states have legalized the drug for medicinal use. Changing attitudes and policies on cannabis have also crossed party lines, as some Republicans are embracing forms of decriminalization or legalization.

Thursday’s summit includes Republican Reps. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, David Joyce of Ohio and Brian Mast of Florida. 

Phillips said the summit was “really excited to hear conservative voices talk about progressive ideas with drug policy reform.”

While a major focus of cannabis reform continues to be the criminal justice space, the National Cannabis Policy Summit seeks to expand policy dialogue to include the cannabis market and industry, where Black and minority-owned business owners are disproportionately underrepresented.

Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jacky Rosen of Nevada discussed bills they introduced to create pathways for cannabis entrepreneurs to access banking services and capital.

Marijuana activists hold up a 51-foot inflatable joint during a rally on Oct. 8, 2019, at the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to pass cannabis reform legislation. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Senator Merkley introduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would create a legal pathway for cannabis-related businesses to obtain banking services in states where cannabis use is legal. 

In a statement provided to theGrio, Merkley said, “Forcing cannabis businesses to operate in cash is an open invitation to every form of crime. Employees get robbed, businesses get assaulted; it’s an opportunity for money laundering and organized crime. None of that makes sense.”

The U.S. senator added, “It’s way past time to bring legal cannabis businesses into the modern, electronic, accounting world. Let’s get SAFE Banking Plus passed now.”

Senator Rosen late last year introduced the Fair Access for Cannabis Small Businesses Act, which advocates see as a companion bill to the SAFE Banking Act. The legislation would ensure that legally operating cannabis small businesses have access to loans and programs provided by the Small Business Administration. 

“The fact that legal cannabis small businesses face disproportionate challenges – like not being able to use banking services or access federal loans and programs – puts them and my state of Nevada at a disadvantage. That’s why I’ve been working in the Senate to find common ground to break down these barriers,” Sen. Rosen said in a statement in theGrio.  

“I look forward to the discussion about our work in Congress to end the federal barriers holding back legally operated cannabis businesses, help promote equity and access in this growing industry, and increase the number of resources available to cannabis entrepreneurs.”

A U.S. flag redesigned with marijuana leaves blows in the wind as DCMJ.org holds a protest on April 24, 2017, in front of the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to reschedule the drug classification of marijuana. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Kaliko Castille, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told theGrio cannabis businesses not having access to the same programs as other small businesses is a “fundamental issue” that “disproportionately impacts Black and brown businesses.”

The equity approach to cannabis policy also extends to criminal justice reform. Last year, President Joe Biden announced pardons for thousands of Americans convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. He also directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to review the scheduling of cannabis under the Controlled Substance Act.

The executive actions were a win for the cannabis reform advocacy community and were seen as a major step in the right direction.

“So much of the negative consequences of being in the cannabis industry are directly tied to cannabis’ Schedule 1 status, so I think having a more rational conversation around where cannabis fits in the schedule is really important,” said Castille. 

“It’s a really big opportunity for us to finally eliminate the main barrier to so many other policies for the cannabis industry.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and White House Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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