Anthony West

Anthony West has seen the effects of drug prosecutions on communities of color. 

He’s the chief operations officer of Roanoke-based Virginia CARES Inc., a statewide program that helps men and women who have been incarcerated get back on their feet when they are released. 

He knows the statistics: A 2020 state report found that the average arrest rate for marijuana possession for Black people was 3.5 times higher than for whites. Black defendants were convicted at a rate 3.9 times higher than white defendants.

Now, as a member of the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, West is part of Virginia’s marijuana legalization process – a process designed by the General Assembly’s Democratic majority to address some of those disparities. 

The board, which is chaired by Janice Underwood, the state’s first chief diversity officer, is tasked with overseeing a fund that will be fed with 30% of tax revenues from the sale of marijuana. The money will be used to help communities that have been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement and economic disinvestment. Just how that will happen will be the purview of the board, known as CERB, which met for the first time a few weeks ago.

The legislation also creates a category of “social equity” applicants – including people who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses or who graduated from historically Black colleges or universities – who would be given preference when cannabis business licenses are awarded.

But the legislation must be reenacted by the General Assembly during its 2022 session. And with the House of Delegates now in the hands of Republicans – many of whom objected to some of the social equity aspects of the legislation – the future of those provisions is uncertain. It’s also unclear what position Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, also a Republican, will take on marijuana commercialization,

“Preference should not be given to people simply because they previously engaged in then-criminal activities,” Sen. David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke County, said last week. “I don’t think there’s a lot of support for a proposal like that.”

The work of CERB would be challenging even without the looming political uncertainty. The board has been researching what other states have done, but it’s still new territory, West said. 

About legal cannabis in Virginia

In July, soon after personal possession and home cultivation became legal in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced appointments to three boards that will manage the road to full legalization, which is expected to take effect Jan. 1, 2024.

The five-member board of the Cannabis Control Authority will create the framework for the state’s cannabis marketplace, from cultivation to sales to distribution.That board includes Bette Brand of Roanoke; we have this Q&A with her.

The authority board will work closely with the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, which will focus on public health issues related to marijuana legalization and must approve any health-related regulations. Read an interview with Dr. Cynthia Morrow of Roanoke, who serves on the council.

The 20-member Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board will decide how to distribute the tax revenue that will be set aside to help communities that have been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement and economic disinvestment. The law earmarks 30% of tax revenue from marijuana sales for the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund.

“It’s totally new,” he said. “I mean, brand new. Nobody has any clue as to what’s going on until we just get in the weeds and start rolling around and making it happen. And to me, I think that’s a good thing. Making mistakes won’t be so dreadful, because it’s brand new. OK, we make a mistake, we learn how to adjust, we fix it and we move on.

“I just hope that a year from now, we’re still in business,” he said. “I hope that this administration, if it wants to tweak some things – go ahead and tweak it. Just don’t throw it all away.”

West spoke recently with Cardinal News about what the election might mean for the board’s work, and why he believes social equity is a key component of legalization. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What impact do you expect the election to have on the board’s work?

[Gov. Ralph] Northam was a Democratic governor, and Democrats lean more to social programs and social equity and things of that nature, whereas Glenn Youngkin comes in as a Republican governor. I have no idea how that will affect anything. 

Right now, I haven’t heard anything, I haven’t seen anything. I’m thinking once the governor gets in and gets acclimated to the office, he might even shake up the whole Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [which was created by Northam and led by Underwood]. I have no idea. I’m playing it by ear and just listening as I go along.

Historically, just from looking at politics in general, when a new administration comes in, of course they have to put their stamp of approval on everything, so I’m sure there’s going to be some shake-ups, some changes somewhere along the way. 

LIke you said, it has to be reenacted. I don’t know if the new General Assembly, the new House, will even – this is what I don’t know, this is one thing that concerns me: Could this new administration go back and just change the whole legalization process of marijuana? If that’s the case, who knows where we might be in another year or two. I have no idea.

Why is it important that social equity be part of the process?

A lot of low-income communities that are inhabited by people of color have been hardest impacted by the so-called war on drugs, or over-policing in certain communities. I see a lot of communities with people that look like me who have been hugely, negatively impacted by legislation on marijuana and drugs in general. I think it’s very important what Gov. Northam and his administration did: not only legalizing marijuana, but coming up with ideas or solutions or plans to see how can we make it socially equitable for everybody, especially those communities with people who look like me.

It’s very important for this next administration to keep this going. I really think that people of color and low-income communities, they’ve got to have some type of justification as to what happened to us in the past. If there’s going to be legalization of marijuana, of course there’s going to be the sale, the wholesaling, the retailing. I think that people that look like me should have equitable opportunities to be involved in the legalization of marijuana, be involved in having dispensaries, be involved in the business, the cannabis business as a whole.

What are the best ways to ensure that the process is equitable?

First and foremost, the creation of this CERB board, having people at the table that sit around and brainstorm and gather information and just see how we can do this. Of course there’s got to be scholarships and grants, because we’re talking about low-income communities the opportunity is not there, the financial opportunity’s not there. 

These people won’t be able to go to banks and things like that because the banks are insured federally [and recreational marijuana remains illegal at the federal level]. So there’s got to be some kind of mechanism in place at the state level to provide the opportunity for them. One of our goals is going to be to come up with ideas and strategies and mechanisms to figure out how do we go about this. How do we get these people more involved? How can we get them a funding source? How can we get them grants, how can we get them loans? What can we do to increase their chances and opportunities to get involved with the cannabis business?

We talked about scholarships, we talked about grants. The money’s going to be coming from the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The CERB board is going to have some kind of influence as to where that money is spent, where it’s going. I’m sure we’ll have to work with other agencies, other programs, other banking institutions, maybe, at the state level. We’re just trying to figure it out as we go.

You’re the only person on the board from west of Richmond. Does geographic representation matter?

This section of the state has to have a voice. It’s very important that voices are heard from all throughout the state. The way I look at it, Southwest Virginia is always getting pushed to the side because there’s no major cities out this way other than Roanoke. And in the grand scheme of things, when you look at other cities like in Northern Virginia and Richmond and down in the Tidewater area, Roanoke compares kind of small in terms of population. 

When you think about it, west of here it’s all farmland. These people might be down there cultivating and growing. Resources are very limited in Southwest Virginia. I don’t see the economic opportunities in those rural areas that I see in Richmond and Tidewater and Northern Virginia.

Besides geographic diversity, what do you bring to the board?

My perspective as being a returning citizen myself. My perspective as coming from these communities that have been hugely impacted by drug laws and the war on drugs, and just my overall outlook as being a reentry service provider. 

Once word really gets out and this returning citizen population truly understands what’s going on, I’m sure there will be a whole lot of questions or concerns and issues on how they can get involved in the cannabis business.

Right now, everything is kind of up in the air, everything’s just holding back. We’re just trying to see what the new administration is going to do. And once people understand what their plans are going forward, I think they’ll get more involved.

What message would you like to give the new governor and the General Assembly?

If they do continue down this road with the legalization process of marijuana, it’s very important to keep social equity at the top of their brains. You’ve just got to involve everyone. You’ve got to be as diverse as you possibly can in this cannabis industry. It’s so important to have people who have been hugely impacted by drug laws feel like they’re part of something, they’re a part of society – make them feel like they count. Give them an opportunity. Who knows – they can go on and do great things with this cannabis industry, and hire other minorities and other returning citizens. Just make it so that everybody is treated equal in the whole process and everybody gets a fair share in this marijuana industry.

One of the things that I’m so fearful for that I noticed in the past is that usually when they do stuff like this, the big guys come in, the big-money boys, the big-money companies, they swoop in and they take over everything. And the small guy, the little guy like myself or like other returning citizens, they might not have the opportunity to invest or participate in the industry.

One thing I would tell the governor is keep an open mind and try to keep fairness and equity at the forefront of what he’s doing going forward.

Big companies from Colorado already got a head start, they got a jump on it because they’re already doing it. A lot of them are probably just sitting back, waiting around, like vultures, just waiting to see what the state of Virginia does.

That’s one thing with the new administration that – I don’t want to say scares me, but has me concerned: Will he allow these big companies to come in and participate more in the cannabis industry, or will he allow what Gov. Northam and what Dr. Underwood and all the people at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are doing in terms of keeping us together, bringing us together to come up with solutions on more equitable participation from the smaller people? 

I just don’t know. I was afraid to try to predict it, because I’m not a political guy; I’m just saying I noticed in the past how different administrations think. I just hope that Gov. Youngkin and his administration stay the course and keep working with what we’ve got. Give us an opportunity to come together and complete this task.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.