For Vermont Social Equity Applicants, Support Can’t Wait
Advocates and entrepreneurs say that while the Cannabis Control Board’s preliminary recommendations for a Vermont social equity program are a start, there is still much work to be done.
Marlena Tucker-Fishman’s love of caring for the earth traces back to her childhood in New Jersey.
Through her family’s backyard garden, her parents taught her the importance of finding connection to the land on which we live. In adulthood, she took that lesson with her to Washington, D.C., where she first became interested in the Black-led urban farming movement, and then to Waterbury, where she and her husband Noah Fishman founded their community-based farm after relocating in 2008.
On that land, ancestral to the Abenaki, the couple has since opened a restaurant, yoga studio and events space, pivoted from vegetable farming to hemp farming, and, in 2020, debuted a line of CBD wellness products under the name Zenbarn Farms. Now, they’re preparing to expand to retail adult-use cannabis.
Tucker-Fishman and a chorus of other advocates and entrepreneurs are calling for Vermont to prioritize industry hopefuls from these communities.
But they want to do more than launch their own retail operation — on Juneteenth, the company announced a new donation-based Cannabis Equity Fund to support entrepreneurs in the industry who, like Tucker-Fishman, are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
“Cannabis cultivation presents a unique opportunity, I feel, especially for Black and Indigenous people being that both cultural heritages come from spiritual practices rooted in the land,” Tucker-Fishman said. “I feel like I now have an opportunity to choose my relationship with the land, unlike what was forced on our ancestors, in a way that’s healing and collective to relieve racial trauma.”
The BIPOC community has long borne the brunt of cannabis prohibition’s negative impacts, even as more states have legalized its recreational use. Across the United States, Black people are more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with possession of the plant, and in the Green Mountain State, they are 14 times more likely to become a defendant in a felony drug case.
As the state’s new legal market begins to take shape, Tucker-Fishman and a chorus of other advocates and entrepreneurs are calling for Vermont to prioritize industry hopefuls from these communities. And though they say the state Cannabis Control Board’s preliminary recommendations for a “social equity” program are a start, they believe there’s still much work to be done.
“We have the opportunity to build a new market with those things in mind,” Control Board member Julie Hulburd said, “Recognizing that the playing field has not always been fair… we can level it to some degree.”
The Control Board’s recommendations would waive application fees for these applicants, as well as license fees for one year, with a graduated schedule thereafter. Under Act 62, signed into law in June, social equity applicants would qualify for financial assistance from a newly-created Cannabis Development Fund.
The program, which would also offer education and certificate programs, would be open to BIPOC residents, people from communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition, or people who have, or have family who have, been arrested, convicted or imprisoned for a cannabis-related offense.
“…It goes beyond just what it takes financially to step into this industry, it’s really helping rebuild what was taken away for generations.” — Marlena Tucker-Fishman
In Tucker-Fishman’s view, to create a social equity program that is truly impactful, the state should not only pour more money into the initiative, but challenge the stigma that still exists and create safe spaces for applicants to share information without being pressured to publicly speak about past trauma.
For BIPOC people who often don’t have the benefit of inherited property or wealth, there must also be provisions to allow cooperative land- and storefront-sharing among several entrepreneurs, she said.
“Think about what percentage of BIPOC people are in jail and how many generations that has affected — their education, their mental health, and how that has impacted their social, economic well being,” said Tucker-Fishman. “So it goes beyond just what it takes financially to step into this industry, it’s really helping rebuild what was taken away for generations.”
For Arantha Farrow, founder of hemp-farming collective Caledonia Cannabis, keeping up with the Control Board’s rulemaking process has been a challenge.
Her interest in cannabis is primarily in its medicinal properties, and she feels CBD and THC in combination can often provide the most healing. She suspects the Northeast Kingdom business will have to incorporate adult-use cannabis to avoid being squeezed out of the market. But Farrow is less concerned with being CEO of a cannabis company than with making sure small local cultivators and retailers can hold their own in the legal industry.
“I want to see this go well, not for myself but because this is directly related to protecting the land and the communities in Vermont.” – Arantha Farrow
“I want to see this go well, not for myself but because this is directly related to protecting the land and the communities in Vermont,” Farrow said.
Farrow, whose father was deported to Zimbabwe when she was a child because of a cannabis offense, would need funding help from the social equity program to even consider pursuing an adult-use license, she said. But after seeing out-of-state investments pour into Vermont in anticipation of the new market, she’s grown “disenchanted” with the local cannabis landscape and isn’t so sure she wants to move forward.
“If we don’t all do this together and all stand up for and create what’s right together, I can’t continue to speak into an echo chamber about it,” she said.
Both funding and access to land have been particular concerns for potential applicants, as evidenced during a pair of town hall meetings recently organized by the National Association of Cannabis Businesses to gather input on the social equity program.
“We know that the biggest hurdle to open a business is capital, and that’s the biggest hurdle for social equity applicants is likely capital,” Hulburd said.
The proposed starting funding level … of the Cannabis Development Fund created by the Legislature — $500,000 — has been criticized as insufficient.
The Cannabis Development Fund created by the Legislature will provide low-interest loans and grants to participants in the program, but its proposed starting funding level — $500,000 — has been criticized as insufficient.
That’s almost the exact amount Sara Farnsworth would need to move forward with a Richmond-based cultivation business, Full Circle Farms. The Burlington resident and her business partners have already secured a land agreement and developed a business plan, but she said they’ve struggled to find investors willing to take the risk.
Though Farnsworth is eligible for the social equity program, she’s unsure if she’ll apply because she doesn’t want to be “pigeonholed” by the label, as she feels some applicants have been in other states.
She thinks there should be more focus on people who are still caught up in the criminal legal system because of cannabis prohibition, and would like to see the state offer more expungement clinics and hands-on support for people navigating that process.
“It doesn’t feel right to me that I’m building this business plan and really hopeful to get a license … but there’s still a lot of people that are in jail right now for the very thing that I’m about to do.” – Sara Farnsworth
“I think we have a job to do together to help raise awareness about this and to help get these folks [out], to liberate them,” Farnsworth said. “It doesn’t feel right to me that I’m building this business plan and really hopeful to get a license … but there’s still a lot of people that are in jail right now for the very thing that I’m about to do.”
Shirelle Grant, deputy director of advocacy group VT NORML, also noted that some social equity applicants may not have proof of their eligibility. For example, it’s difficult for someone to prove that their father was convicted of a cannabis-related offense if he’s not listed on their birth certificate.
Grant said it’s imperative that the Control Board expand available license types to allow for delivery-operator licenses, which would likely require the lowest start-up costs for entrepreneurs, as well as social consumption licenses and cooperative licenses. And she said this work must be done sooner rather than later.
“We don’t want to have to open up the market and go, ‘Oh this is wrong, we’ve gotta do it over,’ or, ‘Oh, this is wrong, we’ve gotta try to fix it,'” Grant said. “We want the market to open up and already be on a good foot.”