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L.A. Leader Wants Affirmative Action Plan for Marijuana Business Licenses

Marijuana legalization was pitched to voters as a way to right some wrongs, namely the disproportionate damage done to minority communities that have suffered under the war on drugs.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson is proposing that Los Angeles do its part by instituting affirmative action for those hoping to get a foot in the door of the local cannabis business scene. "I want a very aggressive licensing system going forward," he says.

"We are taking actions that we believe are affirmative," Harris-Dawson says. "They affirm our belief in social equity and the great injustice and travesty that was the war on drugs."

In an impassioned letter addressed this month to his City Council colleagues, the representative of much of South L.A. proposed a pilot program that would recruit minorities as licensed cannabis entrepreneurs, establish tech-style marijuana business incubators for people of color, create a "worker retention program" and lobby the state for further decriminalization, including support for ending "the loophole that punishes 18- to 20-year-olds for simple possession."

"For decades, people convicted of simple possession faced a lifetime of barriers, many nearly impossible to overcome," the letter states. "Today, we have an opportunity to build new systems and shape an industry in ways that recognizes wrongs, respect all residents and intentionally builds a more equitable society."

Harris-Dawson's proposals, officially introduced to the council, represent healing medicine amid grumbling in the L.A. pot business community that favoring the 135 or so current dispensaries with "limited legal immunity" — know as pre-ICOs — for full licensing next year would also favor a white-dominated status quo.

"I support it and CMA supports it 100 percent," says Virgil Grant, co-founder of the California Minority Alliance, a group for people of color in the cannabis business. "That's always a concern for me as a minority — that we are part of the process and aren't last in line. We need to be there from the beginning. This proposal basically says when pre-ICOs go in, an equity license should go in, too."

Harris-Dawson says he believes his ideas will get support from a majority of City Council members and that they'll be integrated into regulations as they're solidified in November. His proposals will face a council committee next week. "Members of the body have called on me to do this, and we think it will be supported," he says.

Grant, who spent six years in federal prison for operating a dispensary, takes the progress personally. "This speaks to me," he says. "I'm a victim of the failed war on drugs."

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