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…