Can Fresno’s newly-sprouting cannabis industry be a tool for social change?
By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
Fresno has been one of the few holdouts in the state for allowing brick and mortar cannabis businesses to open and operate within city limits. It’s all set to change in January as the city begins reviewing the dozens of applications it has received for cannabis business permits. Cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and even permits for testing sites have all been submitted. Still, the majority of applications – 111 out of 131 received – are for retail businesses. One-fifth of the retail applications received have been presented as “Social Equity” permits. This refers to businesses that intend to operate in economically disadvantaged areas of the city. Not coincidentally, these same areas were the most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and the criminalization of cannabis. The City of Fresno will only grant 14 operational permits for retail businesses, with only 2-4 of those earmarked for social equity permits. Cesar Casamayor and Gidai Maaza, cannabis advocates and co-founders of The People’s Dispensary Fresno, believe that their business can serve as an example for the cannabis industry. It can be an economic tool and a vehicle for community building and social change as well.
The People’s Dispensary began in Oakland as a partnership between friends. Christine De La Rosa, Charleen Caabay, and Michael Schlieker advocate for LGBTQ+ and other underserved groups focusing on fair housing and providing more economic opportunities within their communities. They saw the emerging cannabis industry and were disappointed with the lack of representation for people of color, women, queer people, the disabled, veterans, the incarcerated, and the chronically ill. They created The People’s Dispensary to correct that lack of representation and use their platform to promote economic and social equity for others in their communities.
Cesar Casamayor and Gidai Maaza worked as community advocates in Fresno when they met Christine through the California Urban Partnership. The more they talked with Christine and her group, the more they realized that their visions and principles aligned. Specifically, they viewed the cannabis industry as a vehicle for economic opportunity in underserved areas and as social advocacy and community-building tool. Soon afterward, Casamayor and Maaza decided to become the co-founders of The People’s Dispensary Fresno. With that, their first course of action was to address the City of Fresno about how they viewed the taxation model established by Measure A. It should serve as a means to mitigate some of the social and economic trauma that had been disproportionately inflicted on poor communities by the war on drugs.
“Our goal was to give the city some direction on policy to ensure that there is social equity within the regulation of cannabis in Fresno,” Casamayor explains.
Fresno voters passed Measure A, the Marijuana Business Tax, in 2018. Under the terms of the measure, a tax of up to $12 per canopy square foot and up to 10% of gross receipts would be levied on every cannabis-related business within the city. The revenue generated would be dedicated to both the city’s general fund and a community benefit fund.
Through that community benefit fund, Casamayor and Maaza believe the cannabis industry in Fresno can be used as a vehicle for creating economic opportunity and social equity in underserved communities.
“One of our primary goals is to create opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged groups, especially people of color, to create generational wealth, which is something that historically has been denied to them,” Casamayor explains, “We want to see more people of color getting a seat at the table and having a voice in the direction of city policy and the future of Fresno in general. And we see recreational cannabis and the revenue generated through Measure A as a vital part of making those things happen.”
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and expand throughout the state, it brings with it a tremendous source of new revenue. With that has come large-scale corporate interests, many don’t share the same commitment to reinvest in the communities they serve.
“It’s really important to talk about the importance of non-profit and grass-roots organizations within the industry and the ways that some of the larger cannabis companies limit or exclude participation from advocacy groups or smaller companies like ours, and end up working against the interests of the areas where they operate,” Casamayor warns.
These larger companies create this exclusion by working with some of the larger, better-connected non-profit groups within the city, giving them tens of thousands of dollars in donations. In exchange, these organizations use their platforms within the community to speak out against the smaller groups and businesses, favoring their big business benefactors.
“These underserved communities don’t need another big business that isn’t vested in their growth and well-being coming in, taking their money, and sending it out of state instead of putting it to work here where it’s needed,” Casamayor says.
Casamayor believes the public can become more aware of what’s going on with the industry and separate the businesses that have good intentions for the city from the ones just looking to turn a profit to demand more transparency from the city. Additionally, he encourages people to research the businesses, visit their websites, read articles about what they’ve done for the communities at their other locations, and make an informed decision about where they choose to spend their hard-earned dollar.
“Bringing jobs is great,” Casamayor says, “any business can bring jobs. But are they bringing real opportunity? Opportunity for ownership, opportunity to create generational wealth, and real advocacy for the people. How are they empowering the communities they serve to break these generational cycles of poverty, lack of education, and so on? Unfortunately, very few of the large, corporate cannabis businesses care about any of those things.”
Co-Founder Gidai Maaza, a licensed psychotherapist, believes that “The Cannabis industry has to without question address the economic devastation mass incarceration has and continues to inflict on individuals, families and whole communities in order to address the lingering social and emotional consequences.”
With that belief in mind, The People’s Dispensary Fresno is committed to reversing the “Scarlet letter” of cannabis arrests by directly hiring Black/Brown people and providing them a chance to recover economically, socially, and emotionally. Maaza asserts that providing economic security is a first, vital step to securing emotional stability.
The People’s Dispensary website states, “It is important to know the cannabis industry is exponentially more difficult if you are a person of color. But we MUST persist because this industry belongs to all of us and should be a mirror of the communities who created an industry and marketplace despite the threat of incarceration and, in some cases, death.” This belief that the industry should reflect the communities who created it is at the heart of The People’s Dispensary’s commitment to using the industry as a vehicle for creating opportunity within underserved communities.
“When you consider that many of these smaller businesses are owned by people of color. Then you look at who the principal investors are in the bigger companies, and you don’t see diversity represented. The reality is that it’s exponentially more difficult for a cannabis business or non-profit that is minority-owned to get the funding to compete or even coexist with these bigger companies,” Casamayor notes.
More than just making it hard for a small, independent cannabis business to compete, these entry barriers also de-incentivize people of color and other underserved groups from even trying to get started in the cannabis business. Long-standing issues such as discriminatory lending practices and “redlining” – the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location (and that area’s default history) rather than on an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness – that have historically suppressed black business ownership and economic development in impoverished communities also contribute to the problem. To Casamayor, the issue of access to capital is critical.
“We don’t need service, we need access to capital,” Casamayor says, “It doesn’t serve our communities to simply give us jobs. It serves our communities to empower us to create our own jobs … The so-called “opportunity zones” basically just rent opportunity to people of color. They give access to business, but not ownership. That’s not going to reverse these generational wealth gaps. That’s not going to create real growth or opportunity for the people in these communities.”
For Casamayor and Maaza, the cannabis industry still represents one of the best opportunities for people of color to create the generational wealth, ownership, and social equity that is the heart of The People’s Dispensary’s vision. However, doing so means addressing the negative impact of the high fiscal barriers to entry created by the costly, complicated license and permit process that disproportionately affects minority applicants.
“This is why it’s so important to shape policy so that there’s always a seat at the table reserved for small businesses, for grass-roots non-profit participation, and for economic equity for everyone,” Casamayor says.
And that is why Casamayor and Maaza are focused on Measure A and using the community development fund to help create capital that can be accessed by underserved communities, to help correct generations of economic inequality and heal the social trauma inflicted on them by the war on drugs and cannabis criminalization. Their goal isn’t just to create more economic opportunities for people of color in the cannabis industry, but in other industries as well. Using all available resources to provide whatever opportunities will benefit these communities the most.
This need for real community investment and a commitment by cannabis businesses to truly serve the people who support them is why Casamayor believes it is crucial for the public to “follow the money.” People should make sure they know who they’re doing business with before they spend.
One way the large, corporate cannabis businesses take advantage of the permit application process is by using a proxy partner within the community. Doing so allows them to apply for an economic equity permit on the proxy’s behalf. These permits are given preference and, in some cases, special tax incentives to open in underserved areas intended for residents of those areas only. Once the application is approved, the big business then renegotiates the contract with their local business partner. It essentially pushes them out, taking over the location.
Consequently, they can circumvent the regular review and approval process that was designed to protect local ownership. It is a tactic that has been used in underserved areas of Oakland, Los Angeles, and other states where recreational cannabis has been legalized. Casamayor is concerned about it happening in Fresno, too.
“This is why transparency and accountability are so important in this process,” Casamayor goes on to say. “At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that we’re trying to rock the boat or create problems. The important thing is for these opportunities to be available for whoever can benefit from them the most. Whether it’s The People’s Dispensary or another business, our number one goal is to help our community. Whatever we can do to make that happen, that’s what we want to do.”
In closing, Casamayor’s message to the people of Fresno is a simple one. “I just hope the public supports the good, locally-invested businesses who are looking out for the best interests of the community. I’m not saying big companies shouldn’t be allowed to do business here too, just that the people deserve to know who they’re doing business with and where the money is going, to make an informed decision before they buy.”
Cesar Casamayor and Gidai Maaza have a vision for the future of Fresno’s underserved communities. They believe the cannabis industry can provide the best opportunity for economic equity, community investment, and access to capital to level the playing field for people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and others. Or, as Cesar puts it, “When the faces in the boardrooms look like the faces in the showrooms. Then you’ll see some real change.”