Making Social Equity A Reality
The LGBTQ+ community and cannabis industry have long been connected. For years they have both been marginalized, stereotyped, and misunderstood. New York’s Senator Jeremy A. Cooney has finally filed a bill that recognizes both communities and their relevance to each other. Senate Bill S7603 is what many call a ‘social equity bill.’ It will allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to be eligible for 50% of cannabis business licenses reserved for marginalized communities in New York State.
A company called Pantheon, founded by Tyme Ferris and Thomas Kupiec, who both belong to the LGBTQ+ community and the cannabis industry, was the main advocate for this bill’s creation. Ferris defines Pantheon, which literally means a collective of influential people, as “a diverse group of leaders from a multitude of industries and walks of life brought together to develop a better and people-first model for the cannabis industry”.
The company felt that the verbiage in the existing social equity bill needed to be revised to include those in the LGBTQ+ community. To do this, Pantheon reflected on historical activism as a framework for the updated bill.
A Brief History of LGBTQ+ and Cannabis Policies
The interconnection between LGBTQ+ individuals and the cannabis industry has always been strong. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, great progress was made through the decriminalization of homosexual relationships and the Comprehension Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which effectively eliminated mandatory prison sentences for those caught with a certain amount of cannabis or other drugs. Once the mid-1970’s rolled around, many of the earlier steps forward were reversed. Nixon introduced the Controlled Substances Act in the 70’s, which classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug, reintroduced mandatory minimums, and began the ‘War on Drugs’. This political scare tactic was used to criminalize cannabis and targeted marginalized groups, specifically people of color. Because of this ‘war’, those convicted of a nonviolent cannabis charge were incarcerated; the ‘War on Drugs’’s effects continue today, as many people remain locked up for nonviolent drug charges.
Around this time, the LGBTQ+ community was also facing hard setbacks. The first cases of Karposi’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer found primarily in gay men, were discovered around 1981. This type of cancer was linked to AIDS, which is a chronic condition caused by HIV. Some HIV+ patients soon found relief in cannabis – they used it to treat nausea, weight loss, nerve pain, depression, anxiety, and many other symptoms of the disease.
Unfortunately, anti-cannabis legislation continued throughout the 1980’s and 90’s as the War on Drugs persisted. It wasn’t until 1996 that medical marijuana was legalized for the first time, through California’s Proposition 215. By 2000, it was estimated by Marijuana Medicine? The Science of Controversy that 60% of those using a medical cannabis card in California were using it to treat AIDS symptoms.
Ferris was diagnosed as HIV+ in 2004 and has experienced the tight bond between cannabis and the LGBTQ+ community first hand. Obtaining his medical card from California, Tyme found that it was helpful to use both antiviral medicine and cannabis to counteract the negative side effects of the antiviral. When Ferris realized the positive potential contained in this interaction, Pantheon was born.
Pantheon’s Past and Present
Ferris had an unlikely rise to prominence in the cannabis community. Growing up, he absolutely abstained from the plant. Coming of age in a very liberal and pro-cannabis household, Ferris felt as though he had to rebel against his parents and the activities they engaged in. When he moved to Colorado in 2008, he became a consultant for what is known today as The Farm Co. There, Ferris learned about the cannabis plant, its effects, and the cannabis community.
Realizing that the cannabis industry still hadn’t been corrupted by big businesses, Ferris understood that “This was [his] chance to protect and grow an industry which could finally be people first.” He and his co-founder Thomas Kupiec found peace in the recognition that they could truly help people and make a difference in their lives. With their respective experience (Ferris’s being in the growth of adult-use cannabis and Kupiec’s in Eastern medicine), Pantheon was created.
When multi-state organizations (MSOs) started forming in the cannabis industry, LGBTQ+ communities got pushed out of the business. According to a 2021 study conducted by MjBiz Daily, minority ownership in the cannabis industry has drastically declined. BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities make up 19% of the businesses, and LGBTQ+ owners make up less than 3%. Both the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities worked hard to get the industry to where it is today. Between the hardships of activism and the very real possibility of incarceration (especially for those who are BIPOC), the communities have put in too much effort to be underrepresented. As Ferris puts it, “There is no regulated, legitimized cannabis industry without the blood, sweat, and tears from the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.”
The Rise of the Bill and Allyship
Pantheon has been working on the social equity bill that would name and represent those in the LGBTQ+ community since the passing of the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act, which legalized the recreational use of cannabis in New York State, in March 2021. According to an article written by Cannabis Industry Journal, only 13 of the 37 states in which cannabis is legalized have social equity programs. Pantheon realized this was the case in New York and began their work. They made powerful allies, such as a lobbying firm, Park Strategies, and Senator Cooney. Senator Cooney helped Pantheon to file two separate bills for the New York Senate to review and vote on: the first bill included verbiage to recognize the transgender and nonbinary communities in the cannabis industry, and the second recognized lesbian, gay, and bisexual cannabis business owners. The bills were separated for efficiency purposes, but according to Ferris, they may have divided the community even further.
This new bill will effectively add the LGBTQ+ community as a whole to the social equity program, instead of separating members. Ferris asks that readers “Contact [their] elected officials, [their] local LGBTQ+ community groups, and let them know [they] support LGBTQ+ inclusion with the social equity program of the MRTA in whichever form and number of bills it comes.”
Supporting the bill is not enough, though. Ferris says that in order for the proper recognition of LGBTQ+ community within the cannabis industry to come about, allies need to step up. Instead of celebrating the community one month a year, businesses need to practice what they preach and care about what happens to people who identify as LGBTQ+ year-round. Ferris concludes saying that “If you aren’t making the changes in your boardroom and executive team that you preach on your website and latest press piece, then you aren’t actually an ally, regardless of what you want to tell yourself so you sleep easier at night.”