“There is some under representation, no doubt. And the microbusinesses are aimed at creating some more equity for people that are underrepresented.”
By Rebecca Rivas, Missouri Independent
For the first time, a state official has publicly vowed to push for a demographics survey of cannabis business owners—addressing a key criticism of the medical marijuana program that the Black community was left out of the burgeoning billion-dollar industry.
At a June 22 outreach event in St. Louis, Abigail Vivas, chief equity officer with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said she would advocate for a survey where license holders could volunteer their demographic information.
“Considering the spirit of the constitution…I think that data is important,” said Vivas, who was hired in the newly created chief equity officer position in February.
Vivas led four events throughout the state last month to educate people about the microbusiness cannabis program, which proponents of Missouri’s marijuana legalization amendment said during last year’s campaign was aimed at giving access to communities who have been most impacted by marijuana criminalization.
This fall, Missouri will award 48 microbusiness licenses, and the window to file applications is July 27 to August 10. The application is now available on DHSS’ website.
The program was created as part of a policy response to what industry leaders know the survey will show—that there are very few Black-owned cannabis businesses in Missouri, and potentially few women-owned businesses as well.
“There is some under representation, no doubt,” said John Payne, a cannabis consultant who helped write the constitutional amendment voters passed in November to legalize recreational marijuana. “And the microbusinesses are aimed at creating some more equity for people that are underrepresented.”
In order for these businesses to be able to compete and succeed, the number of new regular licenses in Missouri by law will stay frozen until June 8, 2024.
The only new licenses DHSS can issue until then are microbusiness licenses.
Both state and industry leaders need to spend the next year supporting these new businesses, Payne said.
St. Louis-based BeLeaf Medical is among several companies sponsoring accelerator programs for microbusiness applicants.
“What do they get out of it?” said Todd Scattini, founder of Harvest 360, a consulting group brought in by BeLeaf to lead their education initiative. “People understand like, ‘Okay, they get it.’ They’re trying to help this community that has been destroyed by the War on Drugs by giving them information and access to networks and technology.”
Payne’s consulting firm, Amendment 2 Consultants, has also partnered with the Kansas-City-based cannabis company Show-Me Organics to provide assistance to microbusiness applicants.
Larger businesses could benefit from certain branding opportunities, Payne said, and collaborations that are allowed under the law. But like Scattini, he said it’s also about recognizing Black Missourians are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White Missourians.
“So that should carry over into a disproportionate good impact of the microbusiness licenses,” Payne said. “But what we don’t know and don’t control is who ends up actually applying. And we won’t know that until they’re awarded.”
Vivas said she will write an annual report that will include how many people applied and won microbusiness licenses in each of the seven eligibility criteria. By law, the report must be completed by January 1. People can qualify for a microbusiness license, ranging from a lower income level or living in an area considered impoverished to having past arrests or incarcerations related to marijuana offenses.
Her report will hopefully show who the microbusiness program is opening access for, she said, and ways the department can partner with the business community.
However, DHSS is also mandated by the constitution to prepare a publicly available report for the entire cannabis industry that provides “aggregate data for each type of license.”
Payne said this is where the voluntary survey would come in.
DHSS has sent out surveys within the cannabis industry in the past for other topics, including on banking status. And that has informed policies and partnerships, including legislation on banking that the governor signed this month.
“If people are willing to put that information out in an anonymized way…,” Payne said, “being able to say, ‘Hey, the industry is this percentage male, this percentage of different racial and ethnic backgrounds,’ I think that is useful information from a policy standpoint.”