High Country: How one social equity leader helped land $4 million for Colorado’s war on drugs
Meet Sarah Woodson, an up-and-coming political powerhouse, who led the Cannabis Advance Program charge.
In Colorado, approximately 87% of cannabis business owners identify as white. But in the first state to legalize adult-use marijuana sales, that figure might finally drop with the state dedicating $4 million in new funding to advance industry involvement for communities negatively affected by the War on Drugs.
Originally conceived as the Cannabis Opportunity Program and recently renamed as the Cannabis Advance Program (CAP), the proposal was co-written by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) and the governor’s office. The achievement was born from House Bill 1424, which passed in 2020 and was the first monumental action towards addressing the inequality inherent in Colorado’s regulated marijuana industry; it legally defined “social equity marijuana” and gave Colorado Gov. Jared Polis the authority to expunge criminal records for possession of up to 2 ounces (he later announced plans to mass-pardon 2,700-plus marijuana convictions).
“It was great to hear that members of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee approved $4 million dollars to create the Cannabis Advancement Program pending passage of legislation,” Polis shared with me via email shortly after the committee vote in late January. “We look forward to working with the legislature to achieve our mutual goal of creating a Colorado for all and repairing the disenfranchisement of those who were harmed by the failed War on Drugs.”
But quietly leading the charge behind the scenes is Sarah Woodson, an up-and-coming political powerhouse and executive director of The Color of Cannabis, a Denver-based nonprofit with a mission of “creating a pathway to help more minorities get into the [cannabis] industry” through course offerings, lobbying, and criminal justice support.
Woodson, who is also the founder of the cannabis hospitality company Kush & Canvases, has industry and activism experience with former roles ranging from consulting for the Marijuana Industry Group and acting as the Legal Redress Chair for the NAACP’s Denver chapter to currently serving on the Denver African American Commission.
“This is really about creating an environment where we can discuss what wasn’t right so that we can correct the wrong,” said Woodson during a phone interview. “How can we create more wealth for Black and Brown communities through this billion-dollar industry?”
Like many Coloradans, Woodson was drawn to changing the course of her career when cannabis became legal to purchase recreationally in 2014. But it was also from the encouragement of her husband Terrence, who like a disproportionate number of Black men, had a possession felony on his record.
“The way I reacted was like a lot of people in African American communities and said, ‘Are you kidding me? You want to sell weed? What? This is crazy,’” reflected Woodson.
Realizing the state limitations on entrepreneurs with prior convictions, the Denver native decided to take the leap with him, together launching an ancillary venture as a workaround in 2016 focused on cannabis infused experiences including painting and cooking classes. Woodson left behind one of the largest pro se bankruptcy and divorce companies in the state of Colorado, where as CEO and a certified paralegal, she also created an equity program for women of color to start their own businesses.
“[My husband being excluded from the beginning] didn’t make any sense to me. It’s like telling Anheuser-Busch that because they participated during prohibition, they couldn’t participate during the legalization or the regulation of [alcohol] after?” Woodson explained. “So I started thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ And once I got involved with the Marijuana Industry Group, it was like, ‘Wow — there are people that are sitting around creating these rules and regulations and none of them are people of color.’ Now that it is legal and regulated, those with nonviolent cannabis convictions should be able to have the same opportunity.”
According to Westword, which obtained a recent copy of the proposal — originally asking for $5 million — the money will be distributed to start to provide more opportunities as follows (OEDIT declined to share funding specifics due to the ongoing legislative process):
“Suggested loan amounts range from $50,000 to $100,000. On top of the loan pool, a little under $1 million is proposed for grants to social equity businesses and support organizations that are ‘seeking to innovate and expand’ the marijuana industry while creating new jobs, according to OEDIT, with several hundred thousand dollars allocated to supporting the new business owners by providing help with business plans, operational consultations and other services.”
After working tirelessly for the cause — one that Woodson humbly assured was “a truly collaborative effort” with a team of fellow volunteer advocates and lobbyists, in close conjunction with Ean Seeb, the Governor’s special advisor on cannabis — in the State Capitol over the past two years, a run for office might be in her future, too.
“I believe that [Colorado] can become the gold standard for social equity [in cannabis]. And when it comes to representation, Black and Brown people are not only disenfranchised when it comes to health, education and wealth — but it’s also the same thing in politics,” added Woodson. “So I want more people to understand that it’s not that scary. You can do it. You can get involved, but it takes a lot of work. If I get to the point where the devotion I have for social equity also lies in running for a public office, then I will absolutely do it — that’s the freedom of being an entrepreneur — operating on sheer force, grit, and passion.”
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