An “Uphill Battle”: Vermont Social Equity License Holders Find Support In Each Other

Rebecca White 11 Apr 2023

“Everything that we’re doing, we’re learning for the first time,” Sarah Clark, co-owner of Duke’s Diesel, said. Sarah and Albert Clark had no business experience before opening up their Tier 1 cultivation facility in Chittenden County. “It’s always kind of been an uphill battle.”

Duke’s Diesel qualifies as a Vermont  social equity licensee, meeting a set of criteria created under Acts 164 and 62 to recognize the Black and Brown people who have been disproportionately impacted by government-led policies and cannabis prohibition.

Albert and Sarah Clark, Duke’s Diesel. By Monica Donovan/JAM Creative for Heady Vermont.

“I feel like it was kind of late in the game,” Sarah Clark said about receiving support from the program. Having finished their third harvest since opening in July of last year, grant money, business advice, or even someone to look over their taxes would have been beneficial when they first started, she said.

The language from Act 164 makes some room for social equity measures, including prioritizing those applicants, waiving first year licensing fees and offering networking and education programs.

It also includes a Cannabis Development Fund that should provide low-interest loans and grants to participants in the program, but its proposed starting funding level — $500,000 — has been criticized as insufficient, and doesn’t include a dedicated funding source.

“I feel like [support] was kind of late in the game.” — Sarah Clark, Duke’s Diesel

With little help from the state, many social equity applicants are looking to each other to find support. Duke’s Diesel sublets grow space to licensed cultivator and retailer Euphoria Cannabis, whose owner Tiffany Johnson is opening a store in Burlington this April.

“It was kind of nice to meet someone that was also working to just, you know, build a better life for themselves and their family,” Clark said, noting that it’s been helpful for the two businesses to share ideas and resources.

Miriam Wood, owner of The Tea House, a dispensary in White River Junction, has done her own work in supporting social equity applicants as a licensed applicant herself.

Although she has no formal process, Wood has offered advice for applicants applying for retail licenses, helped find kitchens for manufacturers, and shared information about the Vermont Cannabis Control Board.

Michelle Shane of Clover Hill Cannabis. Courtesy Photo.

“I think we’re in a really unique situation here, where it’s kind of the end of prohibition, and it’s really important to help whoever we can,” she said. “I definitely like to focus on social equity applicants, but our door’s open to everybody.”

Wood didn’t have a background in the cannabis industry before deciding to open The Tea House but felt it was key for her to represent minorities in the industry. “It’s been hard for minorities to get in this industry, and especially women,” she said.

Michelle Shane, co-owner of Clover Hill Cannabis, took her background in organic farming and hydroponics into her cultivation facility. An economic empowerment applicant, Clover Hill was one of the first cultivators in Vermont to receive a license.

While designing the facility in Strafford, Vermont, Michelle and Michael Shane received support from Efficiency Vermont, Green Mountain Power, and White River GrowPro.

“We could have designed it completely wrong if it wasn’t for all the free help from Green Mountain Power,” Michael Shane said.

Going forward, Michelle Shane, said she wants to see a place in the market for small cultivators. “There’s a lot of people that have a concern that a lot of the higher tiers are going to squeeze out the small cultivators,” she said. “I definitely hope that they remain to be a priority.”

After putting everything they had into getting Clover Hill Cannabis going, they ran into trouble registering their products.

“It was really challenging because we are such a small business like it can make or break us.” — Michelle Shane, Clover Hill Cannabis

“It was really challenging because we are such a small business like it can make or break us,” Michelle Shane said. Shane found herself sending daily emails to the Control Board for weeks and didn’t hear back until her products were approved.

Justin Massie and Hope Aguilera, Low Key Alchemy. Courtesy Photo.

“We’re in the same industry with businesses [who have] capital to buy all of their packaging upfront,” Hope Aguilera, co-owner of Low Key Alchemy, said.

Low Key Alchemy, a grassroots Tier 2 manufacturer that specializes in hashish, waited in their space for three months before getting their license. When she applied for the license as a social equity applicant in September of last year, Hope Aguilera said she wrote a letter and interviewed with the Control Board about how she qualifies.

According to the Control Board, it prioritizes reviewing license applications from social equity and economic empowerment applicants. Additionally, they waive the first-year application fee for social equity applicants, but Aguilera said it was nothing compared to all the money they need to run their business.

“We’re in the same industry with businesses [who have] capital to buy all of their packaging upfront.” Hope Aguilera, Low Key Alchemy

While waiting for approval, Aguilera created an Instagram and started selling their CBD products online. When they finally did get approved, Aguilera speculates that it was because of her calls.

“I really see so many things that the equity program could be,” she said. “And it’s really disappointing that they wouldn’t take that as a priority.”

Aguilera said she would like to see the grants promised from the state, along with cannabis-specific guidance, whether it’s business advice or a social equity group.

For Vermont Social Equity Applicants, Support Can’t Wait

“That seems like the very bare minimum that the state could do,” Aguilera said. “And especially in a very white-dominated area.”

In its testimony to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs meeting last week, the Control Board asked lawmakers to consider including dedicated funding for the Social Equity Cannabis Business Development Fund in bill H.270 for the first time ever.

The social equity applicant program, Aguilera pointed out, was designed to address the policies that continue to disadvantage the people affected by the cannabis prohibition. White people in the cannabis industry are profiting off of something that has been used to oppress Black and Brown people, she said — and many people are uncomfortable talking about it.

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