With the Smart and Safe Act or Proposition 207 on November 3, 2020, Arizona adult-use recreational marijuana ushered in a new era for drug policy in the state. As part of this initiative, the Arizona Department of Health included the Social Equity Program, which is intended to help restore balance to Arizona communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and discriminatory policing in lower-income and communities of color. This program allocates 26 licenses for individuals who have a felony cannabis conviction or residents of lower-income communities, which are awarded on a case-by-case basis, unlike the lottery system for traditional dispensary licenses.
Inspired by his firsthand experience with the Arizona judicial system, Thomas Lopez founded Social Equity Partners. This organization will partner with residents who have a felony cannabis conviction or arrest on their record. Social Equity Partners is unique because its focus is on rebuilding communities and empowering individuals through local investment that generates revenue directly into communities instead of relying on foreign venture capital.
During the initial wave of dispensaries being awarded licenses and establishing retail outlets, there will be a flood of foreign money bolstering local efforts, undermining the Social Equity Program’s stated goal. Lopez is going to connect local investors with Arizona residents to create a full circle of community empowerment.
Social Equity Partners will identify candidates that are likely to be awarded a dispensary license and assist them during the application, approval, funding, and operational stages. With fifteen years of experience as an entrepreneur and nationally distributed products, Lopez’s background and business acumen uniquely qualify him to spearhead this endeavor.
“I’m a lifelong Arizona resident, and I’ve seen firsthand the negative effects of cannabis prohibition from my front door,” Lopez says. “When you have a felony conviction for a non-violent drug offense, it just creates obstacles in every aspect of your life, and that hurts the whole community.”
Social Equity Partners will also offer licensees the opportunity to open a turn-key dispensary under the ELEVATE brand, a modern cannabis concept that provides a full range of products. Lopez founded ELEVATE and believes that it’s time to bring cannabis culture into the 21st century.
“Marijuana isn’t what it used to be, and what we’re trying to do with ELEVATE is offer consumers an elegant, modern, clean space to purchase their cannabis products,” Lopez adds.
Arizona is the 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana use, and the cannabis industry is projected to be worth more than $70 billion annually by 2027. Social Equity Partners is the first cannabis dispensary startup to focus exclusively on Arizona natives with felony convictions and arrests. Prop 207 will allow recreational marijuana to be sold throughout Arizona with a 16% excise tax going to local and regional services, including community colleges, police and fire departments, the highway department, and 10% to a justice fund. This fund will utilize a data-driven approach to reduce incarceration rates and re-direct spending to other criminal justice strategies that strengthen neighborhoods while reducing crime.
Maricopa County came under national scrutiny for racial profiling policies under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was ultimately convicted of criminal contempt of court for his refusal to stop racial profiling. The Social Equity Program is a step in the right direction and will require a thoughtful implementation to ensure that the associated revenue improves communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition and racial profiling.