Cultivating Justice: Empowering Communities Through Social Equity Licenses

How the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at AUWCL is Pioneering Change in D.C.'s Cannabis Industry

The far-reaching consequences of the war on drugs, which began in the early 1970s, have left an indelible mark on the lives of millions of Americans, leading to numerous arrests for marijuana-related offenses. Despite the legalization of marijuana in multiple states and its decriminalization in others, individuals still grapple with legal repercussions for simple possession. Recognizing the persistent systemic issues, the Council of the District of Columbia has taken a significant step towards rectifying historical injustices by creating opportunities for those disproportionately affected by over-policing.

In this vital initiative, the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic (ELC) at American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL) plays a crucial role. Co-directors Priya Baskaran and Chaz Brooks found a profound purpose in assisting a couple, both returning citizens, in reclaiming their lives. Sean Thompson-El, formerly incarcerated due to the war on drugs, and Lashonia Thompson-El are utilizing the ELC to establish a cultivation center.

The transformative initiative is spurred by the Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2022, introducing social equity licenses that make up 50% of all new medical cannabis business licenses.

Baskaran emphasizes, “It's about inclusive economic opportunity. If you don't create a dedicated path for folks who have been impacted by the war on drugs, you're not really attempting to ameliorate the harm.”

The Social Equity License program, a novel addition to the city's initiatives, aims to provide a fair chance for those who have historically faced disproportionate challenges.

The Thompson-Els discovered the Social Equity License program and decided to apply with the goal of contributing to the community they've been investing in since their release. Sean expresses, “We want to reinvest back into the community and continue all the work we've been doing.”

However, navigating this new landscape presents challenges. Social equity licenses, being a recent addition, can be intricate and unfamiliar territory for individuals not accustomed to dealing with them, such as the Thompson-Els.

The ELC steps in to bridge this gap, offering guidance and support to those seeking to navigate the complexities of the application process and business establishment.

"We are the gardeners," Baskaran says. "The government makes the seed possible, right? The client and us work as gardeners to sort of shepherd that."

Students at the ELC assist the Thompson-Els with legal research and other case-related support, providing valuable legal experience on crucial issues.

The Thompson-Els aim to leverage the program to rectify the social injustices they've experienced. The social equity licenses serve as “a way to make atonement for the impact of incarceration and address the collateral consequences and generational poverty," according to Lashonia. The couple is passionate about peer support and envision their success as a blueprint for others, inspiring and guiding fellow returning citizens through the complexities of the application process.

The Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at AUWCL plays a pivotal role in the Council of the District of Columbia's Social Equity License program which, spurred by the 2022 Medical Cannabis Amendment Act, aims to rectify historical injustices from the war on drugs. Individuals like Sean and Lashonia Thompson-El, affected by over-policing and marijuana-related offenses, benefit from this initiative. Through their support, Baskaran and Brooks help ELC bridge the gap in the program's opportunities and highlight the transformative potential of social equity licenses, paving the way for economic empowerment and social change.

Story by Brice Helms.