Cannabis marijuana
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MONTEREY COUNTY — A Monterey County program to ensure equity in the local commercial cannabis market is sputtering but will continue on a smaller scale.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously March 19 to continue the Growing Equity Together program, known as GET, despite the fact that it is currently ineligible for grants from the state’s Cannabis Equity Grants program.

The grant program is meant to promote equity in the legal cannabis market by making financial resources and business expertise available to people who were most impacted by the drug’s past criminalization. It draws on funding from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

However, a lack of qualified applicants, expensive regulatory requirements, and an eligibility component that was deemed unconstitutional stopped the GET program in its tracks in 2023. The county was forced to return $400,000 of grant money to the state in December and is ineligible to apply for more grants from the program until the next fiscal year.

“The GET program has faced many challenges, not only from a program perspective, but also from the applicants’ perspective,” Monterey County cannabis program director Joann Iwamoto said during her presentation to the board.

To qualify, applicants had to meet two of three requirements — having been convicted of a non-violent cannabis-related offense, having household income below a certain threshold, and having lived in the county for at least five years. A previous requirement to prove prior cultivation on a property was removed by the board in January.

There were 14 applicants who were qualified for funding if they met certain criteria. That included securing additional funding of their own and finding a properly zoned property for the business, along with completing environmental impact reports in line with the California Environmental Quality Act and local regulations.

State regulators, meanwhile, rejected a component of the county’s equity program that required applicants to be from “a historically oppressed group.” The state found that to be in violation of the California and U.S. Constitutions.

The lack of qualified applicants meant the county could not disperse the state grant money within the deadline of 18 months. A request for an extension was denied.

Despite the setback, county staff told the board that the program did have benefits for applicants, even though most weren’t ultimately awarded grants. Nine of the 14 applicants in the county enrolled in courses to help learn the business, and 10 applicants had a total of 35 consultations with industry experts. Two were awarded the full equity grant amount of $17,000.

The board approved staff recommendations to remove the problematic language and continue certifying applicants in anticipation of future eligibility. Continuing the program will also allow qualified applicants to obtain resources from the state while the county is unable to apply for grants.

The board is trying to breathe life into the local industry, which has seen drastic reductions in tax revenue in the last two years. After rising each year since legalization in 2016, tax revenue from commercial cannabis sales in the county peaked at $20.1 million in fiscal year 2020-21. It plummeted to $9 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and fell to $3.6 million in fiscal year 2022-23. This fiscal year has recorded $1.4 million in tax revenue as of January, roughly halfway through the fiscal year.

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