The cannabis industry promised social justice. The moment demands that we now deliver.
When Colorado legalized cannabis almost a decade ago, positive social upheaval took a slight step forward. It gave the masses of activists who’d fought during the intervening years something new towards which they could aspire — hope. Amendment 64 would usher in a new era of criminal justice with an emphasis on the latter half of the term, as the state slightly relaxed the burdens of America’s longstanding War on Drugs. Early statistics showed that the death of prohibition was a successful step forward for social justice, as 80 percent fewer Coloradans caught a cannabis charge after the implementation of legal weed.
“This demonstrates that the people of Colorado are just as smart as we thought they were,” Mason Tvert, a director of the Yes on 64 Campaign, told the Denver Post following the vote on Amendment 64. “They were fed up with prohibition and decided they want a more sensible approach.”
But, as the Roman poet Ovid once said, hopes are not always realized. While overall arrests for marijuana fell following the passage of Amendment 64, racial disparities persisted. Despite cannabis now being legal across the state, law enforcement continued to arrest black Americans at a rate of 2.5 times more than their white counterparts. They comprised 9 percent of all marijuana arrests while accounting for only 3.9 percent of the state's overall population.
Over the years since, as weed became cannabis, spread across the country, and traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the promise of social justice has fallen flat. Although black Americans have been the hardest hit by America’s failed War on Drugs, they’ve been the least likely to see an economic benefit from the legalization of cannabis. In legal states like Colorado, for example, they are three times more likely to be arrested on charges of possession or distribution than white people.
Meechy Darko of the hip hop trio Flatbush Zombies once summed up the situation as being separate but unequal.
“What hurts me is when I see an article like ‘Mom from Denver makes millions off her new brownie company,’” Meechy said in an interview last year. “I’m like, [a] dude I went to high school with is in jail… people are still in jail for some weed they sold 10 years ago…”
Today, black America is under assault, and the streets have erupted in protest because racial inequities that go far beyond the legal cannabis trade continue to plague this country like a virus. There’s a fever spread throughout the populace, and a collective voice screaming out to be heard that makes writing about Seth Rogen’s love of weed or MedMen’s downfall seem petty and insignificant at this moment.
On May 25 in Minneapolis, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, asphyxiating him. The three other officers, Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng, stood by and watched as Floyd, who was on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back sobbed, screaming, "please, the knee in my neck, I can't breathe."
Those were the same words spoken by Eric Garner, another African American man, who was killed by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Floyd is the latest in an all-too long line of black men and women murdered for the color of their skin. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Michael Brown. Botham Jean. Philando Castille. Trayvon Martin.
Floyd’s death primarily has led to a crescendo of social uprising across the country, as black Americans and their allies look for answers and fight to have their voices heard. In response to this moment, police forces have grown militant, provocateurs from the left and right are sowing discord, and the media has turned into an agent of chaos, fanning the flames of fear for ratings. Though before you begin to condemn the “violence,” know that the violence has been amplified and produced for mass consumption.
These aren’t riots. They are legitimate expressions of unheard societal pain. And this very moment demands that all of us listen.
Take pause and recognize the gravity of the hour. Don’t try to imbue predetermined biases upon these events, instead embrace them for what they are and attempt to learn the lessons that others are trying to impart. Tomorrow, we can talk about the best strain of cannabis or the benefits of CBD, but George Floyd can’t. He deserves to be heard.
Because there might be a lesson here for the cannabis industry too. For too long, we’ve sanitized and whitewashed the legal pot trade in favor of profit margins and perfecting the seed-to-sale chain. But the bill has come due on the capital investment in social justice, and equity made almost a decade ago. Many in this industry have reaped economic rewards on the backs of millions of African Americans who were imprisoned for petty cannabis crimes. Many more continue to sit in prison for doing what CEOs are paid millions to do.
We owe it to them to listen.