As the legal cannabis industry continues to evolve, activists and advocates around the country are working hard to ensure that the burgeoning industry is socially equitable.
It’s a struggle that unfolds along multiple intersecting lines, including race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. It’s also an important and increasingly urgent struggle.
As reported recently in Harvard Political Review, the “emerging cannabis market is abandoning the values of racial justice that in large part motivated those initial calls for legalization. White entrepreneurs are crowding out black and brown ones, with legislation in many parts of the country failing to provide for an inclusive, representative legal cannabis industry.”
According to that report, over 80 percent of legal marijuana companies are owned by white people. This trend both ignores and compounds the racially disparate harm caused by cannabis prohibition laws. Simply put, white folks are now making big money on weed, the exact same thing that landed–and continues to land—millions of black and brown people behind bars.
The Cannabis Cultural Association (CCA) is a New York City-based nonprofit organization working for racial equity in the cannabis industry. We recently caught up with Jake Plowden, Co-Founder and Deputy Director of CCA, to get some insight into the fight for racial equity in the marijuana industry.
High Times (HT): What are the primary mechanisms creating and driving inequity in the marijuana industry?
Jake Plowden (JP): The biggest mechanisms are access to capital, costly application fees, and the educational gap about the advancement of cannabis throughout the country. The selection process in states like California and Massachusetts, the vetting processes for equity applicants, still hasn’t been perfected.
HT: In your experience as an activist, what are the biggest barriers for people of color trying to enter the cannabis industry?
JP: Besides money, another large barrier is the cultural perceptions that come with being black in this space. The War on Dugs is still doing what it was created to do: spread misinformation, racial fear, and stigmatize perception into different communities. Black and brown communities were told for years that the “devil’s lettuce” would make us unproductive members of society.
The burden of being criminalized for cannabis is another barrier. The fact that Colorado banned the formerly incarcerated from entering the legal marijuana industry shows how legislators haven’t been going about this the right way.
I have black and brown people walking up to me during events and whispering “my family would be so ashamed if they knew I was here.” Meanwhile, the Martha Stewarts of marijuana can operate freely without judgment, whereas a black mother who is a cannabis patient has to live with the fear of losing her children due to Child Protective Services.
HT: Can you go into a bit more depth on some of these cultural and educational issues, and how these affect other aspects of racial inequity in the industry?
JP: One of the larger components where the industry is failing is that we are not understanding how the War on Drugs interacts with our lives. How communities of color have to pull ourselves out of that and reeducate ourselves while also trying to move into an industry that pretty much is telling us that if you don’t have enough money to operate the business you are not welcomed here.
So I think we need to have more critical conversations, discussions about how to better help and educate people about the industry. We need to be more realistic in saying that this is about human capital, not just paper capital. And then making sure that we can actually look at the long-term effects that all this has on people. There needs to be advocacy and education before companies think about their ROIs and everything else like that.
HT: What are some of the most urgent problems right now when it comes to racial equity in the industry?
JP: For us as an organization, we definitely have seen here in New York and elsewhere the conversation of equity has kind of become a back-burner topic. When Cuomo first brought it up, he was saying that legalization could be a potential way to really address racism and things like that.
But we definitely see now in places like Oakland and Massachusetts there is too much inconsistency with getting communities involved. And black and brown communities are being used as pawns or are only very lightly empowered in terms of positioning and how much they can actually gain.
Then there’s also a lack of capital. Not everyone has five million dollars to start a dispensary. And I think that’s one of the problems. So I think we are not really hitting the mark as we should be.
HT: Can you explain further what you mean when you say communities of color are being used as pawns?
JP: What you see is that too often there are rules set up that become tokens or just mouthpieces. And they aren’t really speaking truth to the communities they are trying to empower.
So it’s too often that companies are saying, “Oh, you know, our board is diverse because we have some females. The company is diverse.” But then that’s the full extent of it.
I think as you hire one or two black people, that does not speak to the entirety of you wanting to help a community, a black community or a Latinx community, because, you know, it just represents your company. It feels like you are patronizing people just because it makes a company look good but it does not make the whole industry equitable. Too often, I’ve seen people used as ad mouthpieces and only figure heads, instead of having the power to actually move things forward.
HT: What are some of the ways that legislation falls short when it comes to the goal of racial equity?
JP: As an organization, we definitely understand that there is no such thing as perfect legislation. But there are ways to make sure it’s comprehensive enough to benefit the community.
I think too often that politicians get a little overzealous and think, “oh, we know how this works, we enact laws, so this is pretty simple to us.” But too often the problem is that they are not going to get all the intersecting issues that come with the legalization of marijuana.
You are talking about housing, you are talking about prisoners, you are talking about healthcare. So all these different things are intersecting and politicians aren’t really active in making sure they they understand that if we do legalize, how is this going to affect housing? If we do legalize, how is this going to affect someone getting actual healthcare? If we do legalize, do we have resources and programs where people get out of jail for drug offenses, and will they get actual priority in the industry? Legislation still is not looking at everything that is so super connected.
HT: What are some of the solutions or practices that seem most effective at this point?
JP: Well for us, it’s direct action. First, we are doing community-oriented events, constantly focusing on being able to frame our own stories and making cannabis a stronger point in those stories.
We are now developing a documentary about my business partner’s grandfather and other families that use cannabis as a medical tool, and the cultural aspects of how we heal ourselves. So for us it’s about trying to make the story surrounding cannabis as prevalent and realistic as possible by trying to make a lot of this easy to talk about.
De-stigmatizing the conversation starts at home. If you can talk about this with your mother, your father, your sister, whoever, you can talk about it with your neighbors, your community. You can talk about it with your local leaders and help convince them to say, “you know what, the laws that we’ve set in place, we got it wrong.”
We have to be able to take a step back and realize what we did wrong, so we can adjust for the different traumas before opening the gate to legalization.
So unless companies and politicians are really willing to take that step forward and really address the cultural trauma [of the War on Drugs] then I don’t know what to say, because we have to make sure that communities of color are there right from the start, to plant the seed and help people grow in the industry.
HT: In 2017, CCA was part of a lawsuit against the DEA and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Can you tell us about that?
JP: Our federal lawsuit to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act is still under review in the Second Circuit if I am not mistaken.
Basically, our case was technically thrown out. But we were given a review with three federal judges. And what happened was—and what’s amazing—was that we have three judges, two of them were there in person, openly stating that based upon the fact that our case had so much merit, and the fact that we did our own research on medical cannabis, our case has room to come back to court.
So hearing that was a moment of vindication to realize that our case was not dead and that it could be revitalized—and the fact that we have multiple judges on record talking about the medical benefit of cannabis.
For us, this lawsuit is a major way to strip the federal mandate away so that we can look at things like industry, housing, medical benefits, being able to travel without repercussion if you’re using medical cannabis. This lawsuit is the next step in how we actually approach legalization.
HT: So what’s the next step? Where do you want to see the industry go from here?
JP: We have to be realistic about how this industry has to be built on ethics and collective economics. Because I don’t want this to be an industry that’s built on just, you know, making money.
This could be something that addresses a lot of critical pains and errors throughout history. Legalization could be the start of that.
I feel that on the equity portion, we could be a lot more cohesive with our legislative process. Making sure that once we do post a bill it’s including things like reinvestment into the community, making sure that no one company gets all the licenses. So for me, I definitely see the industry evolving, or hopefully evolving, in a way that grows in an ethical direction in terms of how we operate business.
I definitely want to see bigger steps being taken from the cannabis industry to really be receptive and step up in spaces where they aren’t normally in and to be able to talk to people.
People of color are not just consumers. We are here to be conveyers of truth and to really ensure that these laws are written correctly. We want to make sure there are more bridges being built in the urban communities so that people understand and are no longer afraid of this anymore.
We all need to understand how the world really works. This is not just a chance to get high and party and make massive amounts of money. You are stepping into hallowed ground where you are addressing things like economic dysfunction, intergenerational trauma, and the fact that the War on Drugs continues to harm black and brown folks. Be wary of the way you are stepping into this and be prepared to do this work.