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Black Americans are being left out of legal cannabis and that’s a huge problem

We can all agree that legal pot is by and large extremely chill.

It’s been cool to see cannabis emerge from the tabooed shadows of yesteryear to become a relatively normalized, even insignificant, phenomenon over these past couple years.

But a worrying trend has permeated legal cannabis during its short existence.

As more and more growers and distributors flock to Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, et al., Black Americans are in large part being left out.

Disturbing data

Cannabis and late capitalism hardly seem like a perfect match, but Americans love their pot and the marijuana business is poised to hit $21 billion by 2020.

As Amanda Chicago Lewis wrote for Buzzfeed News last year, while legal pot seems subversive, the young industry is being occupied by the same rich white men that already dominate most of our country’s economy.

“Legalizing marijuana sounds revolutionary, but with every day that passes, the same class of rich white men that control all other industries are tightening their grip on this one, snatching up licenses and real estate and preparing for a windfall. First-mover advantage, they call it. That means that anyone who doesn’t make the risky leap to violate federal law and get involved now will miss out, forever. In a few years, when the land grab is over, the cannabis industry may become just another example in America’s never-ending cycle of racially motivated economic injustices.”

Amanda Chicago Lewis also investigated the raw numbers behind legal dispensary demographics, which are not tallied by any specific source. The data is pretty stark:

“Nobody keeps official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership. But based on more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders, and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops, it appears that fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1%.”

1% of legal cannabis dispensaries are owned by Black Americans.

Sure, there are plenty of industries that are racially homogeneous or have diversity issues, but America’s long history of incarcerating young Black men for buying or selling marijuana on the illicit market means that the lack of Black leadership at the forefront of legal cannabis is all the more startling and problematic.

A long history of mass incarceration

Rachel Browne of VICE News wrote last year about Canada’s whitewashing of the legal cannabis industry and why this particular industry’s diversity problem should be scrutinized:

“The weed business is different because it has its roots in an illicit market, one targeted by laws that have been disproportionately applied to people of color and minorities. For those fighting for equal opportunities in the future legal regime, the lack of diversity at the helm shows how corporate and government structures continue to favor a privileged few.”

88% of the 8.2 million drug arrests in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were cannabis-related offenses. Beyond that, “Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana,” according to the ACLU.

With legal pot, the country has the opportunity to rectify this issue in a sense, but that has not happened as of yet.

Black applicants are being denied licenses

Darryl Hill, the first Black college football player in any of the southern athletic conferences, is now trying to get into the legal pot game. Hill, upon getting rejected for a growers license in Maryland, discovered that many other Black applicants had been turned down.

Hill told The Cannabist,

“Here’s a drug that for years has been the bane of the minority community, sending young people to jail by the boatloads. Now, it could be a boon to these communities, but minorities have been left out.”

In Maryland, where medicinal weed was legalized last month, and across states that are just beginning to open the cannabis floodgates, there is an opportunity to learn from the states that have already legalized pot and make a concerted effort to diversify cannabis ownership.

Hill has now taken his application to Pennsylvania, where the application adds points based on “diversity and community impact.” Pennsylvania state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus claimed that states who are adopting new cannabis laws should take an active approach to diversifying ownership.

“There should be additional efforts put in place to ensure that groups that have been marginalized could be a part of this brand new industry. or years, people of color have been arrested and incarcerated for participating in this industry. The least we can do is to make sure they are included now that we want to make it legal.”

Geography determines whether you’re a millionaire or a felon

Legal cannabis is in a weird place.

On one hand, a majority of Americans are in favor of legalization and more and more states are legalizing the plant to some extent, but the federal government and Very Angry Little Elf Man Jeff Sessions have signaled their intent to shut the industry down.

So geography becomes a crucial part of the issue of legal cannabis. Wanda James, a Black grower in Colorado, told The Cannabist about the geographic disparity of the marijuana industry and how it relates to racial diversity:

“In Colorado, if you sell 10 pounds of cannabis today, you probably get written up in Forbes about what a great businessperson you are, but if a young black man sells a dime bag on a street corner in Alabama, he’s probably going to jail for 10 years… In America right now, your Zip code determines whether you are a felon or a millionaire.”

James’ own brother was in the criminal justice system for 10 years after being busted buying 4.5 ounces of weed in Texas. After he was released, James hired her brother but had to let him go when a new state law prevented drug felons from working in legal cannabis.

Doesn’t that seem like the opposite of productive? Shouldn’t new legal weed policies have a direct intention to right the wrongs of the war on drugs? Instead of making the weed business a free-for-all for white venture capitalists with unlimited budgets, shouldn’t we make it as inclusive, democratic, and equal-opportunistic a space as possible?

Certain initiatives, like The Hood Incubator, are looking to diversify the weed industry but we need specific policies and legislation that aim to change the face and racial landscape of legal pot.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and professor at The Ohio State University, told NPR:

“After 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time selling weed and their families and futures destroyed, now white men are planning to get rich in doing precisely the same thing.”

Legal weed is young enough of an industry that serious change can still go down. Right now, it’s poised to turn into BIG PHARMA 2.0. No one wants that.