Note: This story was first published by District Fray Magazine as part of a collaboration with The Outlaw Report on Take Me Down to Cannabis City, an insider’s guide to the legalization of cannabis in Virginia.
Janice Underwood knows what it’s like to be on the front lines. In 2019, she was appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam as Virginia’s first Chief Diversity Officer to serve in a cabinet-level position. Since then, she’s worked to slowly dismantle the commonwealth’s ingrained history of racial inequity through One Virginia, a new initiative to increase diversity within the ranks of state government.
Most recently, after Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize recreational cannabis, Underwood was tapped to chair the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board (CERB), a first-of-a-kind program that will use tax revenue generated by legal weed sales to shore up communities historically harmed by harsh drug policies.
In this exclusive interview, we asked Underwood to break down the mechanics of cannabis reinvestments, whether the CERB’s work is a form of reparations, and how the upcoming gubernatorial race could slow Virginia’s roll towards cannabis equity.
How is the CERB preparing for the launch of legal cannabis sales in Virginia?
The governor really ordered us to begin and end this process with equity in mind. Other states have approached legalizing cannabis sales from the perspective of public health, public safety and agriculture. We want to add an equity perspective to that by involving the governor’s brand new Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion as a co-partner in this initiative. As the first state to have a Chief Diversity Officer, I believe Virginia is uniquely positioned to address this issue.
But to be clear, the CERB is not responsible for the launch of the recreational cannabis market. That’s in the hands of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. Instead, our purpose is to directly address the impact of economic disinvestment, violence, and the historical overuse of criminal justice responses to certain communities and individuals. So up to this point, our role has been to create equitable policies and practices. We want to set up the board for success once tax revenue from cannabis sales actually starts flowing into the economy.
And what happens when that tax revenue starts rolling in? How will the CERB redistribute it?
It’s a complicated question. Virginia’s new law dedicates 30% of taxes collected from cannabis businesses to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The CERB is responsible for managing that fund. Right now, we are still at the very, very beginning of that process. As chair of the CERB, my office is setting up the processes and policies that will govern the board. Once those are established, I, or whoever will replace me in the next administration, will provide recommendations to the board to address the impact of economic disinvestment, violence, and the overuse of criminal justice responses on communities and individuals.
Can you give me an example of how the CERB could reinvest money from its fund?
Right now, there’s no money in the reinvestment fund’s portfolio and we don’t expect to have any until about 2023. The specific institutions and organizations that CERB will support are outlined in the Virginia code. For example, CERB will create scholarship programs and educational resources to support people in foster care and those who suffer from substance abuse. We also want to support workforce development programs, mentoring programs, job training, placement services, apprenticeships, and re-entry services.
But before we can launch a scholarship, for example, the board will need to determine an application process. Also, how will we inform people across the state about the scholarship so they know it exists? What will be the criteria for eligibility? Finally, who will be awarded the scholarship and on what grounds? There will be far more need than money to start with, so these questions are really important.
Who will be first in line for CERB reinvestments?
That’s a really great question. I will defer to the leadership of the whole board to make that decision. It’s certainly not a top down approach where I get to decide what we’re going to funnel money towards. Our inaugural meeting is on October 19, so please be on the lookout for that. Transparency will be one of our pillars because we want to ensure that the community has access to the board as well.
Sure, but do you have any personal opinions on what the board should prioritize?
Ultimately, our priority is to support individual people, families and communities that were historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement. We need to make those folks whole, so that should probably be the first thing that the board focuses on.
What’s the timeline for creating the policies that will govern the board and how it manages its fund?
Well, if you want something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before. And this is certainly something we’ve never embarked upon. I’m not quite sure of the timeline, or how long it’s going to take to set up these policies. That will be at the pleasure of the board. We have until 2023 before any funds are available, so we have our work laid out before us.
How will you involve the community in the reinvestment process?
I don’t think we will be successful as a Commonwealth if we don’t keep a One Virginia mindset. We welcome community advocates, leaders, and policymakers to the open board meetings. We want to build a coalition of allies in this work. But we can’t do it without the community, and we won’t do it without the community. Also, all the minutes and all the work that we’re doing will be posted on our website after each public reading, so the public will be able to track the work of the CERB.
The idea of redistributing tax revenue from cannabis to communities harmed by prohibition is very new. Who will you look to for inspiration?
You know, I know something about pioneering and building coalitions. I was the first Chief Diversity Officer to serve in a governor’s cabinet. We’re building an interstate support network for diversity, equity, and inclusion principles and navigating uncharted territory. We’ve learned from the experiences of other states like Illinois, Washington and California. But we’re also looking for inspiration from Virginians. We are in this together and we want every voice in the room. My long term vision is to normalize diversity, equity and inclusion in the state’s daily operations, which includes this new marijuana sector and the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board.
In March, Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city to launch a reparations program for Black residents. Do you see CERB’s work as a form of reparations?
Reparations are a complicated and nuanced topic. I applaud the work that has been done in Illinois and other places, but it’s a conversation that many don’t want to talk about. For far too long, communities of color and low-wealth communities have been criminalized and unfairly incarcerated because of the sale of marijuana. Whether you call it reparations or not, we are showing a tangible, not theoretical, investment for diversity, equity and inclusion. Because as the governor says, equity is good for people, and it’s good for business as evidenced by Virginia being named the number one state for business. So if equity principles are turned toward the marijuana industry properly, this will also be good for communities that have been harmed by white supremacy, and will help advance real marijuana justice.
But let me be clear, we have a very long way to go and I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. What I will say is that right now reparations remains a complicated and nuanced topic. And it’s too easy for that to be politically weaponized given our current gubernatorial race. My concern is getting the help to those who need the help, as opposed to engaging in a political back-and-forth on whether or not we should use the word reparations.
Fair enough, let’s switch gears then. Many advocates say it’s unfair that some Virginians are still serving time in prison for cannabis crimes when the substance is now legal. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think that’s spot on. We are the first state in the south to do this, but as a nation we haven’t achieved cannabis justice. I want to make sure our efforts are sustainable. I welcome input from activists, community leaders and legislators on what cannabis justice should look like. Let’s all work towards that goal, as opposed to working in silos, and as opposed to attacking each other. We all come from diverse institutions. I may be the commonwealth’s Chief Diversity Officer, but in my heart I’m an educator, I’m an activist, and I’m working towards inclusive excellence.
It’s easy for us to yell and say we want to do it, but doing the work is hard. I agree with people who say that too many people are still serving time in prison, but we have to have realistic expectations for these processes to take hold. Right now, they’re like seeds that were just put in the ground. They haven’t yet taken root in the soil, but we want to make sure that people who come behind us water them and begin to take care of them so that they can sprout.
I don’t mean this as a gotcha question, but do you use cannabis?
Cannabis has existed on this planet since the beginning of time, so I don’t know why anyone would view that as a gotcha question. We have been socialized to view cannabis as an illegal substance that’s associated with criminals, but that was a complete farce. In the 80s, there were certain politicians who criminalized cannabis and intentionally associated it to the Black community.
So I would rethink that question. Because I hope my goal is that we can figure out equitable ways to use the revenue to reinvest in our Virginia communities, so that we can change the harmful narrative that has been perpetuated for generations around cannabis.
Understood. So what’s something you’d want people to know about you then?
I want people to know that I’m a servant leader and that I believe wholeheartedly in diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s not always easy to operate from a diversity and equity lens inside state government. My background as an educator, as an activist, as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife, even as a caregiver to my father, gives me a comprehensive view of what it means to serve people and be a public servant. It allows me to understand the nexus between diversity and equity and state government and how to apply that to the cannabis industry.
It’s complicated and nuanced work, but we’re rolling up our sleeves and doing it.
Thanks. Moving on to the gubernatorial and House of Delegates election. Are you concerned that a change in political leadership could work against what the CERB is trying to do?
As you know, Virginia elects a different governor every four years, but the legalization of marijuana is actually a bipartisan issue. When you take partisan Virginia politics out of it, there are people on both sides of the aisle who are advancing this work across the nation.
Some portions of the Virginia legislation do need to be re-enacted in the next General Assembly before they can become law. I recognize the possibility that adverse sentiments could inhibit the work of CERB, but our mandate is to invest back into the community, so I hope that whoever the 74th governor is — and I hope it will be Terry McAuliffe — supports our endeavors and other programs that benefit the Commonwealth’s constituents.