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Despite incentives, people of color are not flocking to the cannabis industry

The cannabis industry continues to have a problem attracting minorities, despite various state-level programs designed to offer such opportunities.

A big part of the problem is that Latinx and African Americans are hesitant to enter the industry as they have historically been targetted by law enforcement as part of the War on Drugs.

Many states created slots for people of color as marijuana became legal. For example, Massachusetts created a Social Equity Program, using the new industry as an opportunity to help communities with people of color.

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Confusing laws are keeping people away

However, there is still much confusion regarding what is and is not legal, particularly when it comes to the tug-of-war between the federal government and states that have legalized cannabis in some form. Despite the fact that illegal marijuana use is relatively equal regardless of race, many studies show that people of color were arrested and jailed far more often –up to four times more often -- for possession, so it is no wonder that the same people are not rushing to work in an industry that still has so many open questions.

Like many state programs, the Massachusetts program is well-designed and well-intended. It provides both licensing and ownership opportunities, and professional careers with the potential to move into management and executive levels. It offers trade jobs to those with skills that are transferable to cannabis businesses and offers entrepreneurial opportunities for inventors.

There is even a provision for people with little to no job experience who are reentering society after incarceration. The state even gave flexibility to certain towns to implement the law as it best fit their area; the town of Somerville required that half of all licenses go to people of color, seeing it as a way to right past wrongs and provide economic opportunities.

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But Massachusetts’ program is not working; hardly any blacks or Latinos have applied. Many states are seeing the same phenomenon. For example, in Massachusetts, it is a requirement that the applicant lives in a designated “area of disproportionate impact” and that the person has a past drug conviction, or that the applicant is married to or the child of a person with a drug conviction. There are also income requirements.

Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

There’s no mystery here

Cannabis activists say it is no mystery why people aren’t waiting in line to sign up – they are scared of the government. Cannabis is still a relatively new industry, and many people of color say that just because it is legal, it does not mean that all the kinks have been worked out. They suspect and sometimes even fear that the industry will not be as welcoming as it is purported to be. And in communities that have a history of a tense relationship with law enforcement, some are none too eager to invite trouble seemingly.

Massachusetts cannabis businesses are trying to help. Sira Naturals is a large cultivator in the state; the business started the Sira Accelerator, a 12-week program designed to help people of color learn about the industry and skills like marketing, capital raise, and even packaging and distribution.

Sira CEO Mike Dundas told NPR News that the program is designed to offer a hand to those who may have been operating in the illicit marketplace; “we want them to come to the regulated side, get on the books, and let us help them facilitate the start of their businesses."

Sira’s fee is taking a small percentage stake in the new companies. Sira is also hoping to partner with someone to open a Somerville recreational shop; the company already runs a medical dispensary, but the recreational license must go to a person of color.

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Karen O'Keefe is director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.; she said that many states are having the same issue that Massachusetts is having: "None of the states have the kind of diversity that we would like to see in the cannabis industry."

California has the Hood Incubator in Oakland, where farmers like Leo Orleans are learning skills to succeed in the industry. Orleans is expanding from farming into a delivery service that would deliver both groceries and cannabis.

Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

What will it take?

Civil rights advocates like Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, are proposing drastic measures, stating that the cannabis industry should not expand until the inequalities are fixed once and for all. Among Clarke’s proposed items is the “immediate and automatic expungement of criminal records for all people with convictions for low-level marijuana possession.”

Clarke also advocates for pardoning people who remain incarcerated on charges that are no longer criminalized and then allowing people with these prior convictions to be at the front of the line for licenses and other job opportunities in the cannabis industry. Clarke would also like to see marijuana possession decriminalized at the federal level.

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She is also an advocate that current license holders should be held to equitable hiring practices. In an opinion column for USA Today, Clarke offered data to suggest that people without a criminal record are enjoying the cannabis industry boom. Jobs are expected to grow by 700 percent by the end of 2020, but Clarke said blacks and Latinos are not seeing the benefit. She said the industry is still overwhelmingly white, with 99 percent of licenses held by whites. Clarke said the promises regarding racial equity have been unfulfilled.


Header Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

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