The Covid-19 pandemic hit and cannabis brands promptly reassured their staff, consumers and stakeholders and offered empathy. There was a myriad of campaigns by brands that were eager to let the public know that they were helping by donating, promoting social distancing and creating CBD infused hand sanitizers. Some took the opportunity to promote their products that can “help to fight COVID” (which is false).
Yet we now watch another pandemic unfold — one that has plagued humanity for hundreds of years: anti-Black racism. Protests against police brutality and the murder of Black people in the streets of North America and Europe happen every year with little to no changes. So why has the cannabis industry that often preaches diversity, inclusion and social justice remain oddly silent?
When Black people fall victim to the tyranny of systemic racism as seen in the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, whose life was slowly dragged out of him by a knee pinned to his neck for 8 minutes on May 25. Or Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and fatally shot by three White neighbours while out on a jog in his Georgia neighbourhood on Feb. 23. Or Breonna Taylor who was shot 8 times in her home by Lousiville police on Mar. 13 — the silence of the legal cannabis world is DEAFENING.
Many cannabis companies and people will say, “That only happens in America.” The sad reality is that it doesn’t. It is happening in our backyards — in Oct. 2014 Jermaine Carby was shot in a car by police during a routine traffic stop in Brampton, Ontario. Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old South Sudanese-Canadian and a father of five suffered from PTSD and lived in housing-made for people suffering from mental illness. He was holding a hammer when he was shot to death by Toronto police.
(Thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of South London in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and bringing awareness to the 1500 deaths and counting since 1991 by UK police. There has been a disproportionate number of victims from racialized communities, despite Blacks & people of colour only making up 14% of the British population. Source: Unknown)
The American Psychological Association’s president, Sandra Shullman, issued a statement calling racism a pandemic, on May 29th.
“We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens. The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.”
While a majority of companies/brands and their executives remain silent, it is unfortunate that none are coming forward to align with their Black colleagues, consumers and stakeholders and take a firm stance against racism.
The cannabis industry should not be strangers to or unfamiliar with the social injustices and discrimination that Blacks and people of colour have to endure with the criminalization of cannabis & drugs. We are the targets of the war on drugs and we continue to be criminalized amidst a growing legal market. It is incredible that Black people continued to be dehumanized while our Black culture is consumed by the cannabis industry when it is convenient — the vernacular, references to Jamaica, Rasta, Reggae, Hip-Hop/Rap, dispensaries, growing techniques — all without giving the Black creators and Black bodies behind these things legitimate access to the industry.
Enough of the campfire sing-a-longs of “One Love” (Bob Marley) and using Marley quotes!
As Kayla Monteiro stated, “When you are already adorned in privilege and choose to sit on the sidelines, leaving a marginalized group of people to fight for themselves, you are contributing to the problem.” As an industry, we have the “opportunity to speak and move in spaces that my voice as a Black woman won’t reach” or be heard. I am more than a number to meet your diversity & inclusion quota. Shying away from conversations that make you uncomfortable are coming at the expense of our lives.
(Demonstrator at a Black Lives Matter rally, unknown location (Source: Unknown — Twitter)
Many companies are often wary of conflict and backlash, especially in a volatile and polarized time. They are afraid of offending their consumers and stakeholders with “sensitive” subjects, like race. But can we forget what racist propaganda was used in the 1930s to criminalize cannabis?
“Marihuana is responsible for the raping of white women by crazed negroes.”
In the 1930s, the US federal government backed by a racist bigot, Harry Anslinger, formed the ‘Bureau of Narcotics’. The build-up of the organization was intentionally sought to generate fear of cannabis use through RACIST propaganda.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
The Bureau of Narcotics promoted the infamous, “Gore Files” — “tales of murder, violence, loose morals, and effects cannabis had on the ‘degenerate races’ ”, exploiting endemic [pandemic] racism. Associating cannabis use with racial and ethnic minorities ensured that the majority of White America would rally behind prohibition.
“Reefer makes “darkies” think they’re as good as white men.”
“…the primary reason to outlaw marihuana is its effects on the degenerate races.”
“Marihuana influences negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows, and look at a white woman twice.”
The cannabis industry was built off the backs of Blacks and people of colour. We are stigmatized and we continue to be stigmatized inside and outside of these UNSAFE spaces.
Let’s address it — We have a diversity problem. Black folks are locked out of the industry.
Blacks have a lack of access to capital due to systemic economic racism and it excludes us from the burgeoning cannabis business. Racial inequalities continue to be prevalent and it prevents Blacks and people of colour from participating in the “green rush”. Numbers speak volumes, why is it that “less than a fifth of the people involved at an ownership or stake-holder level were people of colour, a 2017 survey found; black people made up only 4.3 percent.”?
“Perhaps most detrimental is the requirement by some states that participants in the cannabis industry have no criminal record…cannabis prohibition is a significant reason why 33% of black men have felony convictions in the first place.”
In 2019, a Buzzfeed investigation estimated that less than 1% of cannabis dispensaries were Black-owned across the US. A Vice investigation found that in 2017, almost all 45 federally licensed producers in Canada were run by White men. A 2016 report on corporate governance found that three in five cannabis organizations have a member of a visible minority on their boards.
“Oakland is about one-third black, one-third white and one-third Hispanic, but cannabis-related arrests in Oakland in 2015 involved black people in 77% of cases, and people of color in about 95% of cases.”
I can continue to list more statistics. But its the same story… it’s 2020 and not much has changed. Cannabis boardrooms lack diversity and it damages the image of the industry. This is why initially the slogan by BLK MKT at Lift & Co.’s expo in Jan. 2020 was seen as “funny” and “edgy”, rather than being seen as inappropriate and RACIST (image below). The Canadian cannabis industry’s reaction spoke volumes! It spoke to Black Canadians and it made us feel uncomfortable! How can we comfortably be apart of an industry that continues to exclude us and doesn’t take issue with complicit racist and sexualized advertisements?
(BLK MKT, an adult-recreational cannabis brand launched in Dec. 2019 by LP GTEC Holdings used the slogan at Vancouver’s Lift & Co. trade show in Jan. 2020. (Source: Leafly; Photo: Lift & Co.)
The cannabis industry should be different. It’s fresh. And its grassroots are in the legacy [black] market. But laws continue to be disproportionately applied to Blacks, people of colour and minorities impeding us from actively participating in the industry [on a global scale].
The industry lacks diversity and it continues to shows how capitalistic, systemic racism and White corporate structures continue to favour the privileged.
The Black Lives Matter movement aims to highlight the systemic racism that enables racial violence, systemic racism/discrimination and prejudices among Black communities around the world.
It is everybody’s ethical and moral duty to support, speak up, and stand in solidarity with those who are battling racism and injustice every single day.
To Cannabis Brands: This is not the time to be silent. Your voices are critical. Show your colleagues, consumers and stakeholders, whether Black or not, that your company stands for the movement and solidarity to dismantle racist structures in our society.
(Source: African American Studies Research Guide: Black Lives Matter, Michigan State University)
Stop muting #BlackLivesMatter statements. Use your medical and recreational platforms to elevate the importance of Black lives.
Moments like these when your silence is deafening it speaks volumes — advocate for our safety and humanity.
Header Image: Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest, unknown location (Source: Twitter)
Ika Washington is the founder of DiversityTalk and a diversity and inclusion advocate in the cannabis and healthcare space. Connect with her about diversity & inclusion, cannabis, and minority healthcare on Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram or Medium.