When Colorado legalized adult-use cannabis in 2012, and rolled out commercial sales in 2014, the emphasis on social equity was not what it is today. But that hasn’t stopped the Centennial State from filling in the gaps. 

The Denver Economic Development and Opportunity (DEDO) department, which works to ensure an inclusive and innovative economy for all city residents, businesses and neighborhoods, is launching a targeted entrepreneurial program for aspiring cannabis business owners that is specifically designated to boost ownership among individuals most impacted by prohibition and enforcement policies.

The Cannabis Social Equity Technical Assistance Program is funded by $500,000 of Denver’s cannabis retail tax revenues and seeks to train and elevate residents who meet Colorado’s definition of a social equity applicant in the cannabis industry.

The program’s 10-week curriculum will include subject-matter experts on topics such as the history and politics of the industry, compliance, delivery, and hospitality, as well as marketing and best practices. Those interested in the program can learn more and register here. (The deadline for registration is 5 p.m. July 15 with the initial training session occurring on July 23.)

Through a competitive bidding process, city officials chose The Color of Cannabis (TCC) as a partner for the program. The Denver-based education center is woman-owned and experienced in providing a pathway in helping cannabis newcomers understand and navigate entry into the industry, including regulatory, legal, financial and logistical challenges associated with the space.

“We are pleased to bring our commitment to greater ownership equity in the cannabis industry to this historic program,” TCC founder and CEO Sarah Woodson said in a June 23 DEDO press release. “We’ll serve several small-group cohorts over the next year and surround them with advice, mentoring, information, and encouragement.” 

Success metrics in DEDO’s program will include the number of social equity applicant businesses entrepreneurs who complete the 10-week curriculum, become licensed, raise capital, create jobs, and/or continue to operate with social equity ownership at 12- and 24-month milestones. 

Raising and accessing capital was and continues to be a barrier to entry, especially for certain people. As the founder of the first Black-owned dispensary in Colorado, Wanda James, of Simply Pure, previously told Cannabis Business Times of her own challenges when raising capital and how the industry could take steps to be more equitable and inclusive.

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Because of federal prohibition, and with SAFE Banking legislation continuously failing to gain traction in the U.S. Senate, cannabis businesses often lack the means to secure traditional bank loans for start-up costs. Entrepreneurs are further burdened by compliancy standards like Section 280E of the tax code, which keeps cannabis owners from deducting their business expenses as a typical entrepreneur can.

In turn, individuals who have capital to invest or alternative resources for funding, as well as industry-specific technical knowledge, have greater access to the cannabis space, according to DEDO.

“As part of our extensive social equity efforts in partnership with the cannabis industry, we’re pleased to now fund free training for social equity applicants,” Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in the release. “Denver set the standard for successful cannabis regulations as the first city with legalized sales in America. Creating and improving equitable access for all to enter this industry, especially those disproportionally impacted by the war on drugs, remains our priority.” 

Following the state definition of a social equity applicant, Denver is seeking aspiring social equity cannabis entrepreneur applicants who meet at least one of the following criteria: 

Resided for at least 15 years between the years 1980 and 2010 in a census tract designated as an Opportunity Zone or Disproportionate Impacted Area; or The applicant or applicant’s parent, legal guardian, sibling, spouse, child, or minor in their guardianship was arrested for a cannabis offense, convicted of a cannabis offense, or was subject to a civil asset forfeiture related to a cannabis investigation; or The applicant’s household income in the year prior to application did not exceed 50% of the state’s median income as measured by the number of persons in the household. 

“As with any business start-up, there is a substantial learning curve for both tangible and intangible elements of business ownership. In partnership with The Color of Cannabis, we’ve developed this rigorous curriculum to meet the unique needs [of] cannabis social equity applicants,” DEDO Executive Director Jen Morris said in the release. “It is also important for us to reinvest our local marijuana sales tax dollars into the community to level the playing field for wealth-building within the industry.” 

DEDO’s technical assistance program aims to build upon Denver’s social equity program, which was also established to reduce barriers to entry into the cannabis industry.

A kick-off event for the initial program cohort will be held from 4-7 p.m. July 21.


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