States increasingly implement “social equity” programs as an element of new cannabis regulations; however, these programs routinely fail to achieve their goals and frequently exacerbate the inequities they purport to solve, leaving inequitable industries, high incarceration rates, and broken communities in their wake. This ineffectiveness is due to the industry’s fundamental confusion of the modern, individualized concept of “equity” with the historical, society-level concept of “social equity.” In this paper, I develop a new theory of “cannabis social equity” to integrate these concepts, and I apply that theory, first, to diagnose why current policies fall short and, second, to propose a new approach to social equity that can remedy the inequities in both the emerging industry and in the populations most adversely affected by the War on Drugs. Through a historiography of the definition of social equity in the cannabis industry, I show how legislators, regulators, advocates, and scholars built the modern definition of social equity by replacing the rich, process-based theories of racial, social, and restorative justice with a narrow set of policies crafted more for narrative resonance than effectiveness. As I argue in a companion article published in the Fall 2023 issue of the University of Massachusetts Law Review, these policies will continue to fail to improve equity in the new industry, bring equitable justice to the previously incarcerated, redistribute resources to inequitably impacted communities, and provide equitable access to cannabis. In contrast, the field of public administration developed the original theory of social equity in the 1970s to provide a philosophical foundation and process for using the mechanisms of program administration and public participation to address societal inequities, not just those inequities created explicitly or implicitly through policy implementation. I extend the traditional theory to include a legislative component that broadens potential solutions by centering the development of cohesive regulatory schema rather than individual policies. I apply the new theory to produce a novel solution that uses the level of legalization as an organizing principle for legislation inpursuit of both implementation equity in the new industry and societal justice for the victims of the War on Drugs. For if all we ask for is equity, there will never be justice.



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