The US marijuana industry, despite the forces of evil in Washington that would destroy it, has become a booming, multibillion-dollar player in the economy. Soon, eight states will be fully legalized—not to mention Washington, DC, itself—and there are more on the way. With cannabis production and distribution morphing into a nationwide enterprise, opportunities abound in the green revolution. But before we celebrate, we need to confront a genuine concern: Will people of color and other minorities be left on the outside of the cannabis economy looking in?
The War on Drugs: A Racist Enterprise
It is estimated that only around 1 percent of legal cannabis businesses are owned or operated by minorities. The barriers that prevent inclusion are deeply ingrained—one might say they are systemic—and overcoming them is a formidable challenge. Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to the proposition that, while all men (and women) are created equal, there is work to be done to truly level the playing field of green that is expanding before our eyes.
The War on Drugs has been a racist enterprise from the beginning, punctuated by a rogues’ gallery of creeps from Harry Anslinger to Richard Nixon to Jeff Sessions. Drug-law enforcement has always targeted minorities, even though we’ve known for a long time that drug usage is fairly equal across ethnic groups. The result has been the rise of a racist carceral state that destroys lives, families and entire communities. It would be a terrible irony if the green revolution does not mature into an inclusive enterprise that redresses, to the extent that it can, the inequities that defined prohibition.
We sometimes forget that, while the legal weed market creates jobs, it also erases them. “We have to consider the fact we’re taking jobs away from these folks on the street who have been arrested,” says Kayvan Khalatbari, a Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) board member (and, as it happens, a High Times Holding Corp. shareholder). “They’re having trouble with more traditional jobs, employment, housing, things like that. Now we’ve taken away their jobs of selling cannabis and we’re not giving them an opportunity to participate in the regulated industry.”
Because racial biases are so often an emergent property of a free market, affirmative action to address discriminatory practices is usually driven from nonprofit interests, such as the MCBA, whose mission is “to create equal access and economic empowerment for cannabis businesses, their patients and the communities most affected by the war on drugs.”
Racial Parity Through Prop 64?
Proposition 64, the California initiative that ushered in the adult-use era in the Golden State, at least acknowledges the racial disparities that are attendant to the War on Drugs. While drug use is fairly uniform across racial lines, for some reason people of color are arrested and convicted at higher rates than white offenders. Provisions in Prop. 64 are intended to reduce the sentences of pot-law violators retroactively to 1996, when the state made medical pot legal. California cities are developing their own plans to be more inclusive, and less punitive.
Los Angeles, which will soon become the largest recreational-cannabis market in the world, is working on regulations intended to mitigate the blatantly racist effects of the Drug War.
“For so long, people that were black, people that were Latino, we have paid the price for this business,” City Council President Herb Wesson told the Los Angeles Times after a recent community forum in Watts. “And as we move this into the legal realm, it is important to us that we have a piece of the action.”
Because local governments in the Golden State are prohibited from giving preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity, mitigation efforts have to be framed as a means to address poverty and assist the victims of the failed War on Drugs. The proposed LA regulations would help the poor who were convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes and their families, as well as those who simply live in neighborhoods that had been slammed by marijuana arrests. The city will also dangle incentives in front of well-off cannabusinesses, offering tax rebates when they help out disadvantaged entrepreneurs.
San Francisco is also sorting out its regulations—in particular, a way to incorporate an equity program that will foster inclusion—in anticipation of the recreational market, but it is doubtful they will be codified by January 1, when Prop. 64 takes effect. City Supervisor Jeff Sheehy introduced a legislative proposal in September, and even he said “it needs more work.” The city is looking east, across the bay to Oakland, for guidance.
Oakland politicians looked at a number of possible equity plans before deciding to set aside half of the city’s permits for low-income residents (people who earn less than 80 percent of the local median income) who had been convicted of a minor weed offense or had lived at least 10 years in a neighborhood targeted for drug enforcement. While Oakland is the first in the state to develop an equity plan, San Francisco might build on it to make it even more inclusive—perhaps by using cannabis tax revenue to bolster communities hit by the Drug War, or by requiring every cannabusiness to submit equity plans of their own.
Transitioning from the Black Market to Legal Avenues
Beyond the municipal government initiatives, groups like the Hood Incubator (hoodincubator.org) are dedicated to helping “underground cannabis entrepreneurs” make the transition to legal markets. We caught up with Hood Incubator co-founder and political director Lanese Martin at a recent New West Summit in downtown Oakland. Martin, an intense and energetic woman who does not suffer fools gladly, says disparities in legal cannabis have their roots in a market that was illegal not so long ago.
“Because of the War on Drugs, black folks, unlike white folks, weren’t creating business plans, keeping receipts, putting on suits or going to their elected officials to lobby,” Martin declares. “We were still keeping in the shadows and hoping not to be persecuted and sought out by law enforcement, so we’re a little bit behind in the areas of mature businesses. But we’re not behind in having customers or in innovation in product development, so we need to capture that, and community organizing is key.”
Martin believes that some regulations within legalized regimes unfairly target people of color. For example, a jurisdiction that bans smoking or vaping in public housing in effect limits safe places for black and brown people to consume. “Without our interference, without our disruption, the legalization could turn into the re-criminalization of black and brown communities,” Martin says. “Or, a sexier way of putting it, the War on Drugs 2.0.”
Entering the Legal Cannabis Space Through Expungement
For many, step one in the transition into the legal marijuana trade is expungement, the erasing of a criminal record in places where the original offense—selling weed without hurting anybody—is no longer considered a crime. The MCBA (minoritycannabis.org) has been conducting expungement clinics across the country—in Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland, OR, with Denver and the East Coast scheduled for their own soon—with help from local law firms. A typical clinic will see a pool of potential applicants prescreened to see if they qualify for expungement, then paired with lawyers to guide them through the paperwork. The legal help is usually free or at reduced rate, and the various fees are paid by sponsors. “A lot of people don’t know they can expunge,” says the MCBA’s Khalatbari, “and it’s very expensive.”
The ideal expungement erases the original “crime,” with associated fines or penalties rescinded, and the expungement itself even expunged. One of the incidental side benefits of the green revolution, done properly, is that it can at least mitigate some of the injustices done in the name of the War on Drugs.
Supernova Women (supernovawomen.wordpress.com) is another East Bay nonprofit dedicated to fostering inclusion in the cannabis industry, or as the group puts it, “to empower our people to become self-sufficient shareholders in the evolving cannabis economy.” Not content merely to take on systemic racism, Supernova battles sexism at every turn as well. Among other things, the group hosts panel discussions that bring people together to explore what the cannabis world is like for people of color, “a safe space for hard conversations.”
“Let’s say you’re a manufacturer or cultivator trying to sell your product,” says Supernova co-founder Amber Senter, “you’re going to be dealing with white buyers, probably a man, and there’s sometimes issues. There’s definitely a good-old-boy network that happens just naturally in every industry, and cannabis is no exception. You’ve got to figure out how to kind of break into that.”
Senter says such blunt talk does not always sit well with everyone in attendance. “During the Q&A, a white gentleman in the audience stands up and says, ‘You know, you guys gotta lose this us-versus-them mentality. We’re just trying to help.’” Senter shakes her head. “Some people can’t stand hearing what we’re saying because they take it as a personal attack.”
Stigma and Pushback
When asked about fostering minority inclusion in the cannabis economy, a white male cannabusiness owner in Oakland offered an anonymous response that was indicative of a certain mindset. He thought it was wrong to push for diversity because affirmative action that favored minorities would distill the talent pool with people who might not be as qualified as those left out. He was not a fan of expunging criminal records of former weed dealers either. “Do we really want criminals in this business?”
There’s a lot of myopia in these sentiments. It is the cannabis-space equivalent of declaring that “all lives matter” as a retort to the harsh reality that people of color are disproportionately the victims of police brutality. The most charitable interpretation one can muster is that such people mean well, perhaps.
Roz McCarthy is the founder and executive director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (minorities4medicalmarijuana.org), an Orlando-based nonprofit that promotes diversity in cannabis through outreach and education. She says the stigma of marijuana in the black community, in particular as it affects her 19-year-old with sickle-cell disease, inspired her to act. “He’s an African-American young man who, if he uses cannabis, could be labeled lazy or a drug offender or something of that nature. He’s not. He’s just a kid who has a medical condition who can benefit from cannabis, and that’s why I founded the organization.”
That stigma is ever-present, even as McCarthy brings a message of economic opportunity to the black community. “One thing we’re trying to teach people of color: You don’t have to touch the plant to thrive in this industry. Those ancillary services—accounting, marketing, what have you—create opportunities. Tap into your passion because there’s a need.”
Making Strides with Minority Groups
While advocacy organizations are new to the scene, they are proving to be invaluable, since it is no easy matter to simply legislate our way out of racial disparities in the marketplace. Witness Florida, which earmarked one of its 10 new medical-pot grow licenses for an African-American farmer. The state stipulated that the farmer had to be a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, but that restriction has cut out the many unaffiliated growers from contention, including Columbus Smith, a farmer from Panama City, who is suing the state. Per the lawsuit, “There is no rational basis for limiting the opportunity of black farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license to only the few members of that class of black farmers who are also members of a specific private association.”
Other states are grappling with the issue of equity with varying degrees of success. Maryland’s medical-pot rollout promised, by law, to seek “racial, ethnic and geographical diversity” in awarding the first 15 cultivation licenses in 2016, but in the end, none of the approved applications were from African-American owners. The state’s Legislative Black Caucus is pressing the General Assembly to pass a bill that expands the medical-cannabis industry to include African-American firms. A bill prepared by the caucus chairwoman is slated to be introduced on the first day the Assembly reconvenes, January 10.
Ohio requires that at least 15 percent of its licenses go to economically disadvantaged minority groups—blacks, Hispanics, Asians or Native Americans—but it remains to be seen how well these groups are ultimately represented or even whether the requirement itself will withstand legal challenges.
Things do not look great in Pennsylvania, where black people are arrested for weed violations at about eight times the rate that whites do, according to a recent report by that state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is calling for full legalization to address this inequity, and the state’s Democratic Party recently adopted this position on its platform. Presently, the Keystone State has a limited medical-pot program set to launch in early 2018. Twelve firms won permits to grow and, although the state was the first in the nation to include a diversity requirement, African-American-owned grows did not score high enough to win a spot at the table. Since application costs reached as high as $750,000 each—for fees, attorneys, consultants, architects and so on—one can see how exclusion of disadvantaged groups is baked into the process.
Massachusetts looks to bring people into the nascent legal market who have been disproportionately harmed by drug enforcement. To address financial and other barriers to cannabusiness ownership, Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley has drafted legislation (in collaboration with the MCBA) that would direct 20 percent of unexpended revenue from weed taxes to equity programs. “If you say you are committed to addressing the growing wealth gap and income inequality, we have to ensure equity in enterprise and ownership,” Pressley told Boston Public Radio. “This is an opportunity for us to establish a blueprint.”
Ways to be Part of the Solution
One way for consumers to support minority businesses is to buy their products. There are organizations that track black-owned enterprises, such as shoppeblack.us, which has featured cannabis professionals worthy of attention and sponsorship. Because of the way information is shared these days, consumers can easily research whom they want to do business with.
There’s another way to be part of the solution. “If you see something, say something,” advises the MCBA’s Khalatbari. In other words, when you attend a cannabis conference or a public panel or any weed-themed gathering, and you notice that the participants or positions of leadership are overwhelmingly, uh, monochromatic, start the conversation.
It is encouraging to see support—from activists, voters and (some) legislators—for a more inclusive cannabis space. There’s no guarantee that a mature industry will be as diverse as it could be (as diverse as the country itself, for example), but with a little oversight and vigilance, we can set the path in that direction.
This feature has been published in High Times’ magazine, subscribe right here.
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