With the social equity discussion now permanently embedded in the cannabis legalization debate, we sat down with Minority Cannabis Business Association President Kaliko Castille to get his take on the legalization legislation currently working its way through the Senate.

Castille believes that hearts are generally in the right place when it comes to the recent draft language released by the Senate leadership.

“I think top line is it’s clear that the senators want to get this right, and I think being able to put out a discussion draft with a period for public comment is super important,” Castille said.

He emphasized it was critical that people take part in the comment period: “I think that number one, it’s just important that they’re giving us this opportunity to provide feedback and I think everyone should be.”

Castille argued there’s a lot of great stuff in the plan that is carryover from the MORE Act.

“We definitely do like that there is money that’s going to be set aside for Black and brown entrepreneurs, which we definitely appreciate,” Castille said. “I think there’s a lot of stuff that we still hope to work with.”

With the subject of funding always being the backbone of the social equity discussion, we
asked Castille if any state had actually pulled it off effectively?

“Not quite,” Castille replied. “I mean, people have good intentions. There are some programs that are obviously getting funding. The city of Oakland has done a good job of making sure there’s some funding. But at the state level, we’ve yet to sort of see a state program that’s fully funded and executed in a way that’s actually getting people money and helping them start businesses.”

While the discussion around cannabis for many activists always included the devastation of the war on drugs, it’s now embedded in the conversation about legalization just like capitalism is. We asked Castille how empowering it is for those associated with MCBA to see the conversation coming from that place of mind?

“I think it definitely empowers us,” he replied. “I think MCBA has done a really great job over the years, and other stakeholder groups as well, sort of shifting the conversation to make sure that social equity is at the center of the conversation. I think one of the things that we need to do more work on as a community, though, is connecting the dots between social justice and economic justice.”

Castille thinks much of the current conversation around federal legalization centers around the social justice aspects.

“But it’s not enough for us to just stop arrests and sort of wipe our hands of it,” he said. “We need to be intimately involved in the process of setting up the industry so that it is set up in an equitable and sustainable way and not ultimately just a big giveaway to big business.”

But even with all the work to be done, Castille spoke to what it’s like watching the bill’s sponsors use the same language MCBA is when they talk about the impact of the war on drugs in communities of color.

“I think that it’s definitely surreal for people who have been in this movement for a long time, both at MCBA and then even before MCBA’s existence,” Castille said. “I think for some of us who have been in the industry a while, it may have lost the significance of how important it is that the majority leader of the Senate has finally thrown his support into something like federal prohibition ending. So I think it’s surreal, but also it’s empowering. We need to take on that responsibility and make sure that we are doing everything we can to repair the harm done by the war on marijuana, which ultimately was a war on Black and brown people.”

We asked Castille if in these moments when big cannabis items are hitting Capitol Hill if MCBA finds it easier to organize stakeholders to advocate on behalf of themselves? He said every bit is crucial but wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily easier.

“I think sometimes, especially in the cannabis movement, that some people see the momentum and tend to feel like, oh well, they got it from here. I think that you actually start to fight a little bit of apathy and a little bit of inertia of people just expecting things to happen,” Castille said. “So I think it’s more critical than ever that we get people involved, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s easier. So, anybody who thinks that federal prohibition is pretty much over and that social equity is in the bag? It’s far from the case and we need everybody and all hands on deck to make sure that the job gets done.”

One of the major discussion topics of the last week has been Senator Cory Booker’s stance that he will not support any standalone banking access bills in lieu of the legalization plan he is sponsoring. Castille thinks the senator’s heart is in the right place.

“But ultimately I think, once again, what we need to do is connect the dots between social justice and economic justice,” Castille said. “Because access to banking doesn’t just benefit big corporations. It also helps small and medium-sized businesses, small mom and pop operators, Black and brown entrepreneurs, equity entrepreneurs. It helps those folks who don’t have access to capital, who aren’t well funded.”

Castille said the SAFE Banking Act isn’t a bill for large corporations or is ultimately at odds with the complete federal repeal of prohibition. He thinks they both need to happen.

“Alternately, if we were to get that passed in this Congress it would provide enough momentum heading into the next Congress to get a comprehensive bill,” Castille said. “So I think we differ in terms the politics of whether it’s safe or a comprehensive bill that needs to go first, but ultimately, we see the SAFE Banking Act as something that will help Black and brown entrepreneurs, equity entrepreneurs, and we also are still continuing to work with some Senate offices to provide more amendments to the SAFE Banking Act, that will ultimately help more Black and brown entrepreneurs get access to capital.”

The counterargument from some is minority communities never had access to fair banking services in the first place. So why give the multistate operators another advantage without checking all the boxes on legalization first? We asked Castille to speak on that sentiment.

“It’s totally true that the status quo is that Black and brown entrepreneurs don’t have access to capital, whether you’re talking about in the cannabis industry, or they have lack of access to capital in the sort of regular banking marketplace. But also, there are things that we can do and we have been working to try to improve the SAFE Banking Act.

Castille said options include things like community depository institutions and minority banking institutions.

“These are banks and financial institutions that actually do have a history of loaning to the Black and brown entrepreneurs,” Castille said. “So we are definitely working on ways that we can open up the SAFE Banking Act to make sure that we are specifically making sure the Black and brown entrepreneurs get access to capital.”

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