In November of 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, the Control, Regulate and Tax Audit Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), legalizing nonmedical, recreational cannabis in the state. In April 2020, the Cannabis Equity Grant Program (CEG) was announced to provide funding and services for those most affected by the “War on Drugs” by lowering barriers to cannabis permitting and licensing, according to their website.
Mendocino County was awarded $2.2 million from the Cannabis Equity Grant Program in 2020, $800,000 in 2021, and an additional $100,00 in 2022 to be distributed by February of 2022 to applicants. Elevate Impact Mendocino is the third-party responsible for administering the distribution of the grants through the Local Equity Entrepreneur Program (LEEP) application. According to the Mendocino County Grand Jury final report, the funds were to be used for direct cash grants, cannabis fee waivers, paying county fees with state grant funds, or providing technical business assistance.
On July 8th, the Mendocino County Grand Jury submitted their final report on the topic, critiquing the county and the program for their lack of procedures, policies and action to distribute grants, along with other issues.
The Mendocino County Cannabis Department (MCD) did not develop an application process until February 2021. Over the last few days, the Cannabis Equity Program has started finalizing the issuance of about 54 checks and has deemed 167 eligible for the funds. Before this new issuance of checks, the program had distributed merely five checks by the end of May. Since joining the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) in 2019 and later becoming Executive Director in 2020, Michael Katz has advocated for change in policy in support of Mendocino cannabis cultivators. He and his organization have been some of the lead voices for those affected by the War on Drugs as they await their funds. “The realities are that there are people who have had to leave the business because funds did not come in in a timely fashion,” Katz said.
With over 240 applicants, the county now only has until the end of August to review applications and distribute the remaining funds that have been designated for the grants to those eligible or the state could take the intended funds back.
On a sunny July morning in 2013, Monique Ramirez’s cannabis farm was raided without a warrant. Based on a Google image from a year prior, multiple helicopters and police landed on her farm under the impression that they were growing more than 25 plants, the legal limit at the time. “I think they came ready to see the dark side of the cannabis space, and obviously that’s not who we are,” she said.
Ramirez, a member of MCA and founder of Sunbright Gardens, is one of the 167 eligible applicants for the grant program. Owning the smallest licensed farm in the state, Ramirez has always wanted to give hope and inspiration to other small farmers and founded Covelo Cannabis Advocacy (CCAG) in 2017. “I really wanted to activate our community to get involved so we could have a seat at the table and shift policy to make it work for small farms,” she said.
After founding CCAG and advocating for the cannabis industry and small farmers for years, she later became the Vice President of the MCA and currently serves on their policy committee. CCAG and MCA have worked in tandem to advocate for the Mendocino cannabis community. Ramirez was very grateful that the grant program would help her farm after her unfortunate experience due to the War on Drugs, but only to be let down.
Ramirez along with many others has suffered from the long-term delays of funding from the Cannabis Equity Grant Program. After submitting her application in March 2021, she was approved in July. Since cannabis is illegal at a federal level, Ramirez knew that she would struggle depositing a check in the name of her farm, so she asked that the check be issued in her name. A year after waiting since her approval, Ramirez received her grant, only to find that it was issued incorrectly. Now she sits alongside the other 167 currently eligible applicants for their funds to be issued. “It’s just really saddening to me that it has taken this long to get people the funding,” she said.
While the county reviews applications and distributes funding, eligible applicants are at a standstill. The grants cannot be used to reimburse applicants for anything that they intended to purchase with their grants, meaning that all eligible applicants must hold their progress while they await their designated funds. Ramirez planned on using the funds to build a new fence and to improve her packaging, but she has had to put these on hold while she waits. In total, it has cost her the opportunity to package all of her products, resulting in her only being able to put two of her six varieties of cannabis into the market. “I know other farms that are in the same predicament, and so that’s been a huge problem as well that I feel like has really been overlooked,” she said.
Not only has the county and those involved lacked in distributing funding to eligible applicants, but they had also offered technical assistance through classes and web seminars that they have not yet followed through with. The classes were to cover topics such as bookkeeping, tax preparation, marketing and other tools that can be used in the cannabis industry. Ramirez signed up for the classes when her application was approved in June of last year, but the program still has yet to hold a single seminar.
Since signing up, she has reached out to follow up on future classes, but the program had told her that they were waiting for enough people to sign up. After waiting over a year and a half, Ramirez brought the subject up to the county again at their most recent meeting. They informed her that the program will be outsourcing the classes to a third party and that there will continue to be a delay until vetted through the county council. “It just became a waiting game where we discovered through many months that they just did not have the proper staffing or understanding of how to implement the program,” she said.
As the end of August approaches, the county has a scarce time frame to distribute all of its funds to eligible applicants. “We’re going to keep advocating on these issues until we see the changes that have been called for, and that ostensibly have been committed too, Katz said. “It’s just a question of when we’ll see them happen.” Cannabis supporters in California have advocated for years on behalf of the plant, creating copious amounts of change over the last decade. Ramirez believes that it is important for those in the Mendocino community to stay involved and understand the loops that those who supply their cannabis have had to jump through, and the harm these delays have caused. “I think it’s just important for them to just know the struggles that we’ve had to go through,” she said. “There are many families that were destroyed, people did get incarcerated and did spend time in jail.”