San Francisco’s Cannabis Equity Program Hits Milestone But Still Falling Short

October 20, 2020

On October 9, San Francisco’s first Latina-owned cannabis dispensary opened in the Union Square neighborhood. The owner, Cindy De La Vega, is a member of the city’s Cannabis Equity Program, intended to help people targeted by the War on Drugs to become licensed cannabis business owners.

De Le Vega’s dispensary, STIIIZY Union Square, is a partnership with cannabis company Shryne Group, Inc. A press release describes De La Vega as a mother, domestic abuse survivor and long-time activist with local community group United Playaz. She grew up in the Sunnydale Housing Projects, the city’s largest public housing development, and still lives in the area.

“I am an example of how equity programs actually create real opportunities for people who will pour resources back into their communities,” she said. “I will use my position as CEO not only to ensure success of the store, but also to be a role model for women and women of color, showing them they are capable of becoming leaders and business owners.”

Cindy De La Vega, owner of STIIIZY Union Square. Photo courtesy of Christian Averill, Quality Produce.

San Francisco’s Cannabis Equity Program is similar in scope to those in other California cities like Oakland or Los Angeles, as well as state-wide programs in Massachusetts and Illinois. It offers special privileges to cannabis license applicants historically disadvantaged by the War on Drugs. Eligibility criteria include having a marijuana criminal record, residing in a low-income home or having been at risk of homelessness.

Applicants benefit from the city waiving their $5,000 license application fee. They can also partner with “equity incubators,” which may offer them three years of rent-free space, or “technical assistance,” such as help with the process of setting up the business and securing a license.

But as Filter and other outlets have reported, San Francisco—like many other jurisdictions attempting cannabis equity programs—has for years failed to deliver on this promise. The first dispensary owned by an equity applicant, Shawn M. Richards, did not open until December 2019—nearly two years after legal cannabis sales began in the city.

To date, only four dispensaries owned by equity applicants are operational in San Francisco. The number of equity-owned businesses not open is far more telling: as of December, 133 storefront applications were waiting to receive a permit from the city, while 277 applications total are being reviewed, including for non-retail business.

The reasons behind this failure are manifold, and extend far beyond the responsibilities of the program itself. For a new cannabis dispensary, getting a city permit is just one step of the process, which also involves completing reviews with the police and fire departments. Applicants are also required to own or rent their own business location while completing the licensing process—for owners like Richards, that meant paying over $200,000 over three years while he waited to open his business.

And of course, the federally illegal status of marijuana has also impacted equity applicants by denying them access to loans or other financial services. Crucially, they also cannot write off any business expenses associated with selling cannabis. A pending bill in Congress, the SAFE Banking Act, would address at least some of these issues if passed.

De La Vega herself has criticized the difficulty of the cannabis equity process she had to complete to open her new store. She credited her success to people like Richards and the San Francisco Equity Group, who help applicants navigate the obstacles. “You gotta start with where we are from,” she told SF Weekly. “[This process] is built for failure, not for success.”

Like Richards, De La Vega has benefited from partnering with an outside group—Shryne—which has provided the funding and investment needed to open up shop. This is highly significant when start-up costs in high-demand areas like Union Square can easily range from $1.5-3 million. Sadly, many equity applicants lack access to such partnerships.

Nonetheless, De La Vega’s success is a notable milestone for the city. She now has a big platform and voice to help other Latinx, Black and disadvantaged entrepreneurs to have a fair shot in San Francisco’s cannabis market.


Top photo by Elsa Olofsson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander's journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and "Ban the Box" campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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