By Erica C. Barnett
On Tuesday, the city council’s finance committee approved several pieces of legislation from Mayor Bruce Harrell aimed at improving access to the cannabis industry for Black Seattle residents and other people “disproportionately harmed by the federal War on Drugs,” including “social equity licenses” intended to reduce barriers to entry for people historically excluded from the legal pot industry, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
The new licenses would go to businesses with owners who have lived in “disproportionately impacted” areas or who have been previously convicted, or have family members who were convicted, of a drug-related crime.
The city can’t create new state cannabis licenses, which are distributed (and limited) by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, but they can set standards and fees for cannabis businesses operating in the city. The new local licenses would work in tandem with forthcoming LCB rules that will give priority to cannabis license applicants who have been convicted of cannabis-related crimes in the past; Seattle is expected to gain two new cannabis licenses after the LCB issues its decision.
The council also passed legislation that would require new licensees who buy existing cannabis businesses to retain existing workers for at least 90 days and to preferentially hire former employees for at least six months.
The biggest debate on Tuesday involved several amendments to a third bill that, among other intention-setting provisions, mandates a future “cannabis needs assessment” to “provide demographic information about workers currently employed in Seattle’s cannabis industry; determine the highest training needs of those workers wishing to advance in the cannabis industry and become owners; and include recommendations about whether and how to fund such training,” according to a memo from council central staff.
The legislation also proposes an advisory committee made up of “workers, industry members, and community members impacted by the federal War on Drugs” to review that assessment and recommend future policies to the council.
Initially, Mosqueda named UFCW’s training program in an amendment describing “the type of organization that should conduct the Cannabis Needs Assessment,” but a later version of that amendment, which passed Wednesday over opposition from Nelson and Pedersen, said the assessment should be conducted by an unspecified nonprofit “with expertise in the roles and functions of jobs within the cannabis industry.”
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson voted against the bill, arguing that it was designed to hand the contract for the needs assessment to the United Food and Commercial Workers 3000 (formerly Local 21) which has lobbied the council heavily on this issue. “I’m asking for an honest and transparent needs assessment to be conducted, not one that stacks the deck for a particular interest [group],” Nelson said.
Initially, Mosqueda named UFCW’s training program in an amendment describing “the type of organization that should conduct the Cannabis Needs Assessment,” but a later version of that amendment, which passed Wednesday over opposition from Nelson and Pedersen, said the assessment should be conducted by an unspecified nonprofit “with expertise in the roles and functions of jobs within the cannabis industry.” The needs assessment and the work of the task force could lead to future proposals, such as training requirements for workers in cannabis sales, production, and processing jobs.
Originally, UFCW suggested a new “cannabis equity tax” that the union estimated would raise $5 million a year, primarily for “workforce development and training.” Earlier this year, a representative from UFCW told PubliCola that they hoped to win the contract to do this training work, which would include medical training for budtenders who are “operating as de facto pharmacists.”
The UFCW-backed proposal, which Mosqueda’s committee discussed extensively earlier this year, would have been more prescriptive about hiring, requiring all cannabis businesses to make a “good-faith effort” to ensure that half their workers currently lived in distressed ZIP codes and requiring that at least 10 percent of employees at each business had a past cannabis-related arrest or conviction, or have an immediate family member who met that criteria. That plan was never part of a formal proposal, but it did inform the ongoing debate about what the city should do to promote equity in cannabis.
Although the suite of bills from Harrell’s office represented a dramatic step-down from those proposals, representatives from the existing cannabis industry expressed concerns in a letter to committee members last week. Among them: What happens if a company that processes cannabis into one kind of product sells its license to a different kind of processor, but has to retain all its employees for six months under the new law? “Regulation that impacts hiring must respect the individual who is needed and qualified for a job, and not a one-size-fits-all approach,” the Washington Cannabusiness Association wrote.