Founder of Beyond Equity and Chair of Oakland Cannabis Commission
“Low-income Black, Indigenous and people of color communities who have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization should have authentic access to the economic opportunities promised by cannabis reform.”
Leading Edge Vision:
Chaney’s vision is to win tax and policy changes to ensure that people in the communities most harmed by the drug war can enter the cannabis economy, and realize equity and economic mobility through increased reinvestment in those communities.
What is your vision for your community? For California?
My long-term vision is to create strong cannabis equity policies that become widespread and are carried out in the true spirit in which they are intended, locally and statewide in California, and eventually at the federal level. The people most impacted by the war on drugs and systemic racism have the power and knowledge to make informed decisions when voting on issues related to reversing the war on drugs. Cannabis becomes more affordable and accessible to the low-income people who depend on cannabis for health, healing, and survival. The low-income Black, Indigenous and people of color communities who have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization have authentic access to the economic opportunities promised by cannabis reform. Barriers to accessing social equity programs, such as overtaxation, overregulation and access to capital-are removed, opening truly equitable pathways for people harmed by the drug war to enter the cannabis industry.
In the short-term, our vision is that the State of California’s unreasonably high tax rate on cannabis sales is lowered. When cannabis taxes are lowered, the cannabis industry will finally become competitive with the legacy market, generating tax revenues for reinvestment in the communities most harmed by the war on drugs and strengthening the economy. At present, the unregulated legacy market is far more profitable than the regulated cannabis industry, so the states that have legalized cannabis are not seeing the hoped-for return on investment. Changing the tax structure will change this dynamic.
Can you share a story, either personal or from a directly impacted person, that exemplifies the problem you are trying to solve?
The past few years have been challenging here for cannabis. Due to climate change, we’ve had fires throughout the state of California that have destroyed property, homes and businesses. Ongoing burglaries have caused further harm, as well as over taxation and overregulation. Most traditional businesses have protections. Businesses can write off certain things for taxes, can be protected by insurance and have access to banking. Unfortunately cannabis-based businesses don’t have a lot of those protections. There is no access to banking, because cannabis is federally illegal. You can’t write off expenses like with other businesses.
Over-taxation really harms small businesses. Here in California, culturally and historically we have been leading in cannabis because of small cultivators and small equitable businesses. Many of them are Black and brown-owned. With all those barriers, we’re losing businesses. We have social equity programs, but they’re not strong enough so small businesses can’t compete.
When I entered the space around 2015, I entered as an unlicensed operator. Eventually, I was able to secure a delivery license. When I went the legal route, I lost business because people didn’t want to pay the high tax. These taxes hurt businesses, consumers and patients, especially Black people and people of color. I wasn’t able to keep the delivery service afloat, pay staff, rent and purchase inventory. I was in a business partnership that I eventually dissolved. I would have been better staying in the unregulated market. Now, I have no desire to open another dispensary or delivery retail.
We know the war on drugs was a war on Black and brown communities. I was personally affected by the war on drugs. My parents were addicted to crack cocaine, and I lived in a neighborhood impacted by drugs. That is my driving force.
What progress have you seen thus far in your work?
Our advocacy at the state capitol this month was hopeful. Governor Gavin Newsom recognizes that cannabis in California is hurting because of high taxes and is looking at getting rid of the cultivation tax. That’s a huge deal. We have to keep applying the pressure. This movement has been led primarily by Black women with very little support, but we had 150 people show up to the State Capitol to advocate. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress. We’re also seeing more social equity dispensaries open. For example, in 2021, three dispensaries in Los Angeles, all owned by Black women, were started.
What more would you like to do?
Lowering the taxes is part of it. Getting cannabis legalized in your state is a win, but the actual hard work starts after that. A lot of harmful policies have passed along with legalization. We need to make sure funds from cannabis are not being used to fund law enforcement. People vote blindly when they want something legalized and don’t read the fine print, such as taxation and regulation. Once we have the victory of lowering taxes, then we want to redefine the social equity language. There’s a lot of gray language so people are qualifying for social equity who shouldn’t. If it’s supposed to be a form of reparations, let’s make sure it is implemented that way and not charge people an application fee.
What barriers have you faced, or continue to face, in achieving your vision of change?
One of things I appreciate about being a part of this fellowship is that I’ll get funds and mentorship, but what’s also important is the opportunity to narrate our own stories. There’s a lot of misinformation around cannabis. People are still learning about it. It’s a new industry. A lot of times, white men are being centered and not other voices. We need support not just for businesses but also advocates doing the work to keep the cannabis industry afloat and make it inclusive for marginalized people.
How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help?
I’m excited to see the other amazing people who are part of the cohort. Some are friends and others, I have just admired their work. The work I do intersects with everything they do. Cannabis is a social justice issue. It’s a housing issue; people are still being denied access to federal housing because they use cannabis. People are still being denied jobs because they consume cannabis. I’ve been searching for mentorship for a long time. I’m really looking forward to growing over the next three years individually and with my cohort.
Who needs to hear your story and what is your call to action for them?
We need accomplices and allies. This work can be tiring; the main people on the frontlines are advocates and operators. Cannabis justice is an issue for everyone–especially if you consume it for your well-being and health. It’s important to know how the money spent on cannabis is used and know the difference between social equity operators, brick and mortar operators and large conglomerates.
There are lots of ways to be involved, whether it’s going to the State Capitol, donating and supporting organizations that do the work, or learning about what’s happening so you’re informed when going to vote. If we don’t continue advocating for the state of California to lower the excise and cultivation tax, we’re going to lose a lot of business. We’ve already lost some, and some won’t survive through the end of the year. If that does happen and we lose a good amount of these businesses, our traditional brick-and-mortar industry in California will end up being corporate. We’ll have an industry built for an elite community of people to participate in and be consumers, while people who look like me will be forced to go back underground.
When the state legalized cannabis, they predicted that all this money would come in. There’s been a lot of assumptions which have hurt our industry. For Gavin Newsom and the Department of Cannabis Control, my message is to listen to us and let us lead.