Unpacking Biden’s Marijuana Pardon Policy w/ Tahir Johnson (MPP)

Unpack the recent reform on Biden's cannabis policy

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Episode Description

Tahir Johnson is the Director of Social Equity and Inclusion at the Marijuana Policy Project where he developed and launched an internship program in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus foundation placing interns at some of the most prominent companies in the industry. He advises legislators, regulators, and other industry stakeholders on best practices to ensure equitable cannabis laws and programs.

He is also the host of The Cannabis Diversity Report Podcast. Featuring cannabis industry operators, advocates, and allies discussing issues related to social equity and highlights of their experiences, challenges, and success stories as minorities in the cannabis industry.

Together we unpack the recent reform on cannabis policy announced from the white house on October 6, 2022. This is a huge step in the right direction towards legalization of cannabis. Our expert guest, Tahir Johnson, dives into what this announcement means for the industry and how we can create a more equitable future for cannabis.

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Episode Transcript

Tom Mulhern: Welcome to the Kaya Cast podcast. Today on the show I have a conversation with Tahir Johnson, who's the director of Social Equity and Inclusion at the Marijuana Policy Project, as well as the host of the Cannabis Diversity Report podcast, and he's a dispensary owner of a brand new dispensary opening hopefully in the coming months here.

Tahir’s on the show today to talk about the announcement that President Joe Biden just announced of marijuana policy reform. President Biden started off his announcement by saying No one should be in jail for just using or possessing marijuana. He also talked about how well white and black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates. Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at a disproportionate rate.

So he announced a three step that he was taking to end this failed approach. First pardoning all prior federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana. He urged governors to do the same for state offenses, and he is talking to the Secretary of Health about how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

So he took all of this in and he said, you know, he ended off by saying too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana, and it's time that we right these wrongs. So I wanted to get an expert in the field. Who really knew how to unpack these and decipher this for all of us.

So Tahir is gonna jump in and really make sense of this and talk about that social equity programs that he's working in and how we can work to make the cannabis industry a more equitable and more inclusive space moving forward.

And before we jump in this show, I just want to make aware of the fact that Tahirs Bird was in the background and you can hear Tahirs Bird throughout. So, you know, Maybe that's a, a peaceful kind of background noise that uh, you can enjoy.

So anyways, let's just jump right into the show and unpack this huge announcement.

Tom Mulhern: Tahir Johnson is the Director of Social Equity and Inclusion at the Marijuana Policy Project. He advises legislators, regulators, and other industry stakeholders on best practices to ensure equitable cannabis law and programs. He's also the host of the Cannabis Diversity Report podcast, an amazing podcast that I've listened to and you guys should go check out.

Featuring cannabis industry operators, advocates and allies, discussing issues related to social equity and highlights of their experiences, challenges, and success stories as minorities in the cannabis industry. Tahir is also the CEO of Simply Pure Trenton, New Jersey, a black owned recreational cannabis dispensary coming soon to Ewing Township, New Jersey.

He's also the dad of three Amazing Girls. Hey, Tahir, man, thank you so much for being on the podcast. It's awesome to have you here, man.

Tahir Johnson: Thank you, Tom. Thanks for having me. Man, it all, I swear it always. Crazy when I hear people reading the bio like, Dang, I really do do all that stuff.

Tom Mulhern: Do you ever get a chance to rest or you just go.

Tahir Johnson: Man here and there is mostly go though. But I, really enjoy, especially cannabis, it feels like there's so much to be done. And I really enjoy having the opportunity to be active on so many levels. Every moment it feels like we have an opportunity to make history. So just being blessed to have a moment to be in it.

It's like I don't wanna miss any second of it. So try to be involved in every angle.

Tom Mulhern: Tell me about your background and how you got involved in the cannabis industry. Cuz you're, You're right in there, you're in policy, you're in podcasting, you're opening a dispensary. How, what's your background in cannabis?

Tahir Johnson: Yeah, sure thing. So I grew up in, um, I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey where I now have the opportunity to come back home after 21 years and get ready to open a business. And I went to college at Howard University here in Washington, Dc. I've had a long time relationship with cannabis. I used cannabis for the first time in high school but really not really, wasn't a regular user until my college days.

I've always loved the plant, right? I was one of the kids in the kid in college that would be doing the research reports on make the report on cannabis and stuff like that. I never really got involved in it professionally in the legal cannabis industry.

So my previous background to cannabis was working in finance. So I was, in most of my career, I was in wealth management and banking. Like I was a banker, branch manager, and like in wealth management, investment advisor. Helping people with retirement, playing stocks and bonds and all those things.

And in 2013 when I was working at Morgan Stanley, I saw a company called GW Pharma. Go Public on the stock exchange, which had a cannabis pharmaceutical drug. And that was the first instance. And I'm like, you know, this is a little bit different than, you know, what we knew for me and my friends would be like in the neighborhood and whatnot.

So that was the first instance where I saw where cannabis was going, but I never got involved in the legal industry then. Then there was like California, I guess like then places like that where they were active in growing markets, but it wasn't something that we were really familiar with on the East coast.

And it wasn't until like 2018 when there was medical cannabis in Maryland where I saw the opportunity for the. I read about my friend Hope Wiseman, who's the youngest black woman owner dispensary in the country. And she had a similar background in finance. And so that kind of gave me the idea like, that my skills could, work into the industry.

And at the same time as I was looking at the industry, I, I hadn't known that there was such a lack of minority ownership in the industry until then. I would've just assumed that it's weed, right? That there's plenty of black people involved in it. But when I found out in the legal industry, there wasn't, and the reasons why was because of like lack of access to capital, like the job skills.

And all the things that I get to work on now with social equity, like people with previous charges and previous experience in the industry not being able to be involved. I was like, that's what made me really want to get in because I knew that being somebody that I would think is from the same culture or environment, but knowing that I had, for one, the professional background that I did, I, I thought that would gimme an opportunity to get into the business, but also to be able to educate others to, find their pathways. I guess I've been my own personal kind of Guinea pig on how to make it in the industry.

Cause I quit my job in finance and then worked my way through all these things over the years. So that's been it.

Tom Mulhern: That's amazing. That's such a inspiring story. Going from school to finance, I was in insurance before this too, so I know like being in one of those more not as exciting of an industry and then coming into cannabis and it just feels like community. And to be on the social equity side, trying to bring, a balance in business is so important.

I really applaud the work you're doing and I see the tide turning and it is such a small community in such, such a small industry right now. And you know, when I was talking to Ernest Toney from BIPOCANN and he was talking about how if we're able to figure out some of the social equity now before it really explodes, that's so key for black business owners.

Tahir Johnson: Absolutely.

Tom Mulhern: We'll talk a bit more about the social equity in a bit, but I want to have you on here to talk about this huge announcement that President Joe Biden announced, and we're gonna unpack it because I think a lot of people initially were really excited.

They're like, Oh, he's talking about cannabis and marijuana, and he's making changes. But I kind of wanna know from you as the expert, What does this actually mean for the industry? So what were your initial thoughts when you heard this announcement?

Tahir Johnson: The crazy thing, and it's interesting you said you worked in insurance because that same day, right? I was actually speaking at the National African American Insurance Association, like on a panel and there was a question asked about, you know, when will cannabis get legalized, You know, so forth that they have to ask on every cannabis panel, right.

Um, and you know, I kind of said that not if, but when type of answer. Right? Because I, you know, I think most people will tell you, especially from what they've seen from the administration or just the general kind of, people that kind of see the legislative. Let's just say work upfront seems like it's a little bit further away than a lot more people think.

Although we're close, right? It's like kind of being on like that 10 yard line, but you really gotta get to the end zone where, you know, but you gotta get through the big linebacker and the line and all that stuff. It's kind, we are there, right? But you know, To see that positive momentum and Biden to make this announcement that same day, like that was super exciting.

So I came out of that. I think everybody was excited. But I think as you unpack it and start to read into it a little bit more, right? So first the like the part about the proclamation about people that have the simple cannabis possession charges, right? I guess as I've been, as I've been reading and hearing out there, there's like little to no people that have like solely, simple cannabis possession charges, right?

So like when you look at it. I know in terms of the number of people that it's actually impacted may be smaller, I think, than people may have thought. But at the same time, I think what is exciting. What I think we have to give them credit for is some, like some movement in the right direction. I think that, we have to think, when we think of this, the cannabis, the stigma that's been built up over a hundred years in cannabis and somebody of Joe Biden's age, he's not gonna be the guy to be that drastic step.

Like we didn't get his side like cannabis is legalized overnight. But I think it does show that he's keeping his promise towards where he talked about people shouldn't be in jail for cannabis. He encouraged governors to do the same. He said that they should review their rules and, but the most important part was saying that he would review the scheduling of cannabis, so that means rescheduling, or what I would say in favor of is descheduling cannabis. It shouldn't be on the schedule at all. And certainly I think this is a step towards if we're foreshadowing like what he wants people to do, right? Get, let's get these people outta jail. If everybody who had the power to do similar things, decided to do the same thing on their state level, whatever, then we'd have a heck of a nice situation.

Tom Mulhern: So do you think, obviously there's the federal side and like you said, that it doesn't affect that many people. Like it's not gonna clear out the prison system and everything, but on the state level, how likely is it that governors are gonna start responding to that and, pardoning those state level criminal possession charges?

Tahir Johnson: I know there's a number of states where cannabis is legal now, where that expungement or like clearing the charges has been a part of it. I know like in New Jersey for example, when we just legalized cannabis last year that was a huge part of it that Governor Murphy made the commitment to do I think that if go forward, if there, I know some states went back and did it retroactively, like Colorado, et cetera. I think going forward, right? It should just be an automatic thing. And as we talk about cannabis legal, like any person who's had a previous charge or is currently incarcerated for cannabis should come home.

They shouldn't have these charges on their record. But I think that's overall, really one of the arguments for cannabis legalization in general and descheduling in general, like the whole industry part, like this industry, we're making all this money is great. But when we talk about like the, what it's really about is like all of these people that are like, serving charges locked up the way it impacts your life.

It's a serious thing. So I think that's the most important part of legalization. And this is the step in the right direction towards that.

Tom Mulhern: Do you think there's a reason that Biden didn't go all the way to decriminalization? He just, talked about descheduling?

Tahir Johnson: I think one of the times that we've repeated, at least him in specific, that we've repeatedly heard him say, is that we want the research. He's talked a lot about medical cannabis and he's talked about the research. So I think he's taken a, a more kind of measured slow approach.

He wants to feel like if he's making that decision, it's an expert decision. I don't think he's necessarily making it like to be from like a radical change, but I think he realizes that, right?

If we look at the number of people that are in prison for cannabis. I think he, he realizes that it's wrong and, and to be playing right. It's a good political decision. Anybody can look at the numbers, the statistics, and see that most people these days on either side of the aisle are in, the majority are in support of, cannabis being legalized.

So it's, it is definitely a popular political decision.  I think the whole time he's always told us that he would be taking a measured approach to it. So I, That's probably the why in it.

Tom Mulhern: If it gets changed from a schedule one to a schedule two, what will that do for the industry? Will that change how people do their businesses, even as a dispensary owner? Will that change how you do stuff?

Tahir Johnson: What I've read is that rescheduling like right to one of the lower schedule. Could have some negative impact on the structure of the industry and like the way we have dispensary systems now.

But I'll say I have heard that there could be some collateral impacts of rescheduling. So that's why I would say that I would I, and I think most people are in favor of descheduling of cannabis that is not on the schedule at all.

Tom Mulhern: And how do you think that descheduling or decriminalization or legalization will impact those marginalized communities?

Tahir Johnson: What is it that they say is, I think it's like almost like 50% of the people who are like arrested or like these days are like cannabis charges. For me growing up, like I'm thankful that it's legal there now. But it's like weed was just always a reason to stop you and search you.

Every time in the car, it's like you get pulled over for something stupid and you just search you, Oh, you got some weed and you're going to get locked up. So it's like not having that, like just the scent of cannabis has always been a pretense for people to be stopped and arrested and all these things.

And that in itself makes a big difference in the way it impacts our communities. Cause that's been the one thing that's, that's caught so many people up, right? You can't even not even being able to get financial aid and things like that when you have cannabis convictions.

And it overwhelmingly impacts, black and brown communities. The data from A C L U shows that African Americans are over four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis. So when you look at that alone, that's a, I think it's a great way to get some of our people out of the criminal justice system.

But A lot of what my work is, is kind of looking at the things that we have learned from these other states and best practices.

As people are looking to legalize cannabis, what are some of the best practices that they can look at? To try to make the market more inclusive. Also trying to find build pathways for opportunities for people to, to work in the industry. Myself I've done a, quite a bit of work with other industry groups, like Last Prisoner Project, 40 tons.

Even myself and my dispensary in New Jersey. I partnered with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation and made a commitment to hire at least 10% of our employees from people that have previous cannabis charges. For me, I know how important it is just because, I think the impact of cannabis prohibition is, that's always been what I've seen firsthand, for years. And now I'm super excited to be in the industry and have a, have an opportunity to. Share and create this generational wealth opportunity that exists here. When you come from seeing the, like that impact that it has that always remains important.

Tom Mulhern: What are some of those best practices that you've found for, promoting inclusion and diversity in the industry?

Tahir Johnson: Some of the most important things are, are kind of lowering some of the barriers to entry to be able to participate in the market. For example, many states when they open have cannabis licensing. They may require people to have a certain amount of capital in the bank to apply.

I've seen that on license applications, like you have to have $300,000 to show, minimum to show capital. And the majority of states that have, that have passed so far, you've been required to have real estate. Which is a huge one because especially with cannabis being federally illegal, it's not like you can say, Hey, I want to go get a mortgage to go, buy this dispensary.

And often when you're trying to deal. Real estate folks, the zoning is very difficult. Like being able to find folks to let you get in there was, is difficult. So like the real estate is another huge aspect of it. Another huge aspect of it is the license application fees, right?

In 2019, when I applied for a license in New Jersey, it was $20,000 to apply. Of course, 18,000 of it was refundable. But if you look at people from minority communities with all the, so with Black and Latinos having one 10th the wealth of our white counterparts already, right?

Then it already excludes a certain number of people to being able to participate. Also in the past we've seen where cannabis charges have been an exclusion for people being able to apply in the first place. So it's like you're saying that people that have had the, been that kind of built the industry aren't able to participate.

That one should be a no brainer. But then also I think some of the things are, I think opportunities for like we said, people that have been, the communities that have been impacted in this to sharing the benefits. So in many of the recent states, like starting with Illinois, New Jersey is the same, New York.

We're seeing where money from the cannabis tax revenue is going to like community programs, like states, social, going to the actual social equity applicants, like all those types of things. I think those are best practices as well. And man talk and like New York, talk about them actually having a fund to be able to help people that wanna be in the industry.

That's a huge one actually access to capital.

And it's like you get these little things from like each state, like little by little, like new stuff adds on. You kind of learn from, I mean, the things that have unintended consequences, but also kind of just keep trying to, they keep adding them up and tinkering with them like, you know, as new states come online so that we ultimately get to whatever the best, kind of thing is. You know, It's just trying to get better little by little.

Tom Mulhern: Yeah, those little, there's little glimpses of a bright future, there's so many steps you have to go through to get to, to, to where you're at, like opening that dispensary. Do you see those social equity programs working or is there still a long ways to go with a lot of the social equity programs that states have created?

Tahir Johnson: New Jersey in particular people were able to apply for licenses for as low as a hundred dollars. Having a previous cannabis charge actually could give you priority in the application process if you qualify for social equity.

The money's going back to the communities. If you were in an impact zone, like if you were, you're from, or like you're putting your business into place, has been one of the places they've identified as been impacted by cannabis. That was, a priority situation.

So again, I think that they did a lot of a good job in addressing a lot of those things. People being able to apply for licenses for as low as a hundred dollars. Like you don't see that. Anywhere. So I think it opened up the opportunity of what people could apply. And now I know that we've seen hundreds of conditional licenses being issued.

I think some of the problems still exist in like the access to capital to be able to actually stand up your business. That's the real bottleneck. The fact that towns had local approval if they wanted to allow it or not.

A number of towns opted out. So it's really limited in the places where businesses can be stood up, even though there's no cap on licenses or anything. I think they did a great job and I think we'll see it grow and progress. But I'm certainly man, whatever word I can say, thankful, lucky, blessed that I get the opportunity to be a part of it.

And me and one of my childhood friends, won two, were the first 11 licenses with my big sister, Wanda James and Scott out there in Colorado. So I was even thankful that they would that they would trust me with their brand to bring simply peer to New Jersey. So we're definitely at some exciting times and we're looking at trying to get open soon.

Tom Mulhern: When are you guys planning to open?

Tahir Johnson: Man, we're putting all the finishing touches on this conversion application and I know the estimate has been about, they say 90 days for the application. That would put us in January, but I'm hoping that it could be sooner than that.

I've been doing all the different prep preparation stuff. I've gotten my whole tech stack together, like the architectural engineering designs checking all the boxes so that whenever they do say, Give us the green light, we'll be ready to go right then and there.

Tom Mulhern: So a question for those businesses that are, established dispensaries how can they work to make a more inclusive space in cannabis? You talked about hiring practices and ways that they can support marginalized communities, but what advice would you have for a dispensary owner who's like, I need to get involved in making this a more inclusive space?

Tahir Johnson:  So for one, and I'm going to do this by answer it, by talking about diversity. I think having diversity in your team is important. Having somebody that comes from and understands, like authentically what it is you're trying to accomplish and where you're trying to go, or can communicate with community that you're trying to build.

Like all of those things are super important.  Like I've had the opportunity to be in a lot of these companies or rooms that people, ask like, how do you do it?

I think that like, how do I have the insight to do it is because I am like the person that I'm talking about, right? That I'm trying to help and trying to do. And there and to be honest, people are always so impressed with me, but as I go out, there's a million like Tahir Johnsons out there, like people that, that are just like me, that have like the business experience that like come from this community that y'all are trying to reach, that that wanna have businesses that want to own in this industry.

And if you just give 'em the opportunity and get 'em in. Like you see the results. And so that's building a diverse team, but not just, having, when you have minorities and people of color, women like diverse thought, like in your industry, it gives you a different perspective so that you can actually reach these groups.

And I think of it like I, I really learned that when I was in finance and that was one of the things that Morgan Stanley did well. It's I think they realize cuz even in finance, most of the, and most financial advisors are like older white men, right? But as you think of like where wealth was, where the way wealth was changing, there are more women making wealth decisions.

There are more people of color that are now acquiring wealth and you're not gonna reach those groups if you don't have somebody that can speak to them and understand them that they relate to. So it's same thing in cannabis. If you really want to reach and have this impact, if you build a diverse team, then I think that will help you accomplish those goals.

Tom Mulhern: We're gonna create a situation here. You're, you get this email and it's from President Joe Biden, and he is like, Tahir, man, I need your help. Come down to the White House. You're just down the road. What would you say to him if you had an hour and he said, Yeah whatever advice you give me, we're gonna make this happen.

What advice would you give to the president? After he's made this announcement.

Tahir Johnson: The biggest way that I think you can reach people is through storytelling. So I would want to share with him I think some of the stories about, for one, the way cannabis being illegal has impacted people's lives, right? The way prohibition has impacted people's lives.

But on the other side of that, the way having access to cannabis has helped people's lives. From people that are using medical cannabis or even people who may be self-medicating and using cannabis for something else, because cannabis has had such a huge impact on a number of people.

When I was working in the dispensary, I heard stories about how it was changing people's lives, had the opportunity to work and talk with veterans and hear them talk about it. And I think, man, that's a, that's a powerful, important angle too, right? Like I think if he just saw the way it was helping veterans, like that might be something that you know, have an impact.

So I would wanna tell 'em and hear those stories and really just reiterate that nobody should be in prison for cannabis. Everybody that has charges they should be erased. Like, you know, this, this should not exist like the same way as alcohol, the same way people, can freely consume alcohol as, and it's an adult decision in choice.

Cannabis should be the same thing. And I think also that as we look at legalization I think that it's important to to make sure that we give opportunities to the people. Cuz again this impact has had years and years of damage on communities. And I think that as we do look at legalizing it front and center has to remain, how do we help and make sure that we can positively impact those communities from something that's had a negative impact for such a long time.

In all honesty like, it, it really is a, a great step to see. I was certainly excited. I know a lot of people were, were excited and I've even seen a lot of people were pessimistic about it, right?

Like, it doesn't do enough. It doesn't do far enough. But I'm certainly a believer that Rome wasn't built overnight. It's a step, right? It's a step in the right direction and I definitely applaud it for being done.

After you take one step, let's take two. Let's, Let's take three. Let's keep steppin until we cross the line. Thank you again for that President Biden we hope to see um, what more can be done on cannabis policy reform during your time in office.

Tom Mulhern: How can people find out about what you are doing and really connect with either the work you're doing at MPP or your podcast. How do people connect with you?

Tahir Johnson: Yeah, for sure. Now I have a million different email addresses, but you can definitely catch me on all the socials on Facebook and LinkedIn is my government names Tahir Johnson. You can search me that way. Instagram, Twitter, even TikTok. It's Ty Diddy, t a h d i d y. No one really do a lot of TikTokin', but , Instagram and Twitter more.

And of course the Cannabis Diversity Report, the podcast is available on all podcast platforms. Your Apples, Google, Spotifys, etcetera. And you can find that on YouTube. There's like the video and the audio of it that's around for all the episodes. So yeah, man, I, it's hit me up any way I can help.

Whether we're talking policy, folks trying to get into the business or learning about how to get into the industry I'm always glad to sharing help.

Tom Mulhern: Thanks so much for being on the show. And yeah, go check out Tahir on all the different platforms he's doing. He's doing non-stop so man. Thanks so much for coming out and sharing and really kind of unpacking this announcement and giving us some insight.

Tahir Johnson: Absolutely man. Thanks for having me.

Tom Mulhern: Again, I want to thank Tahir for jumping in last minute to really unpack this important announcement. And as we discussed, this is a first step. It's a first step in the right direction, and if you've ever done any sort of running or training, it's all about those first steps all about taking those first steps towards your end goal.

And our end goal is that decriminalization legalization of cannabis and really dropping those criminal offenses, there's people in prison while other people are making millions of dollars on cannabis. And so this is a first step in that direction and I, I again, want to thank to here for taking the time to really unpack that for us and go check out his website, his podcast, the work he's doing with all of these organizations because we can work together to make a more social equitable cannabis industry. And it's, people like Tahir that are working on the forefront of making that happen.

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