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By the numbers: How legalized cannabis fails Black America

Jun 8, 2020

Over the past week, stakeholders in the cannabis industry from the private and public sectors used the national moment of uprising marked by George Floyd’s death to call for racial equity and social justice in a way that some in the community found hollow and appalling. Whether plastering the internet with banner ads stating Black Lives Matter, putting out yet another statement saying we’re all in this together, or using the opportunity to as a way to argue for cannabis legalization, it was clear to some that many in the industry have little but a surface level understanding of what’s necessary to fulfill the promises of social equity upon which this sector was built.

For example, while a majority in the space did offer PR in the guise of thoughtful support to national protestors, only a tiny fraction developed actionable plans that worked towards the betterment of the black cannabis community. Groups like Minorities for Medical Marijuana started a petition drive that garnered thousands of signatures. At the same time, the Minority Cannabis Business Association developed a solid plan for protesters should they come into contact with law enforcement.

The truth is that even in the face of national unrest and a unified call to end racialized terror against the black community and people of color, the cannabis industry doesn’t feel the need to act. As Alex Halperin wrote in WeedWeek last year, to the mostly white business owners of corporate marijuana, social justice isn’t financially viable. Conversely, although state and local governments may feel the need to push for more equality, they don’t have the means to do so.

It’s the reason why most equity programs fail, wrote Halperin, who noted that laws designed to push social equity in the post-legalization landscape have mostly failed. Legislators struggled to make these programs a reality in places like Los Angeles and Massachusetts, while in Portland, the local government couldn’t do much better than muster two $30,000 grants.

For so long, society saw cannabis as an underdog that it ignored the growing power corporate conglomerates amassed when the plant was legalized. Hundreds of thousands of black Americans went to prison as the War on Drugs raged on, only to be cut out of the legalized industry in its infancy. Now, the ongoing protests across the country barely registered as a top news story to many in the space.

But the numbers tell a story of a community that’s been ignored for over a decade. According to groups like the ACLU and NORML, the cannabis market will be worth an estimated $40 billion in 2020, with an average of about 55 million regular users — half of whom are black. But the startup costs for a dispensary in the industry are astronomical. At almost $800,000, it’s designed to keep poor people and people of color from ever having a chance.

That’s why white people own over 80 percent of cannabis businesses, while members of the black community account for only four percent of all ownership. 

There is one statistic where they do better than white people, however, and that’s in arrests. According to groups like the ACLU and NORML, black Americans are arrested at a rate four times higher than their white counterparts for marijuana infractions. In places like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, that number jumps to almost 8.5 percent. No amount of banner ads can make that better.

Some in the industry have come up with solutions. Last year members of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and the National Cannabis Industry Association presented a report called “Increasing Equity In The Cannabis Industry: Six Achievable Goals For Policy Makers.” In it, they developed six actionable goals to help bring social justice and equity to an industry where it’s been sorely lacking.

The report includes some much-needed ideas, including automatic expungement for non-violent cannabis-related crimes, the creation of more equitable licensing structures, and the prioritization of licenses to those affected by the War on Drugs. They also suggest lower licensing fees, the use of minority subcontractors, and more investment in communities hit hard by the drug war.

Of course, all of this requires buy-in from an industry that, so far, has shown little willingness to do so. But for the industry to succeed, those in the community will need to understand that legalization is not enough, because unless legalization is done right, there can be no progress at all.

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