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Why calling for cannabis legalization as a tool for racial justice falls flat in an industry where white privilege prevails and why more has to be done

Law enforcement officials attacked peaceful demonstrators across the nation on Monday as they gathered for yet another night of protests against police brutality, sparked by the death of an unarmed African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minnesota officer Derek Chauvin. Violent scenes of protestors and journalists being teargassed and beaten were strewn across social media, with images coming in from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. In Washington DC, federal officials dropped teargas on a crowd outside of the White House in an apparent effort to clear a path to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where President Trump then took a photo-op with uniformed officers and a bible.

In response, journalists and other influencers in the cannabis space used opinion pages to dissect the War on Drugs and racial tenets of prohibition as the background for why militarized police forces target black communities. Most concluded that while legalized cannabis was not a panacea that would end police brutality, the end of prohibition was a necessary step towards de-escalating the tensions caused by the over-policing of African Americans.

But statistics show that cannabis legalization has done little to elevate black Americans over their white counterparts in the decade since both Colorado and Washington first passed their referendums. And empty promises and platitudes are the reasons the peaceful demonstrations continue.

Even today, cannabis prohibition is used as a cover for racist police tactics aimed at African Americans and other people of color. Simple possession that would often go ignored in white communities — or that’s now enjoyed legally by many — snowballs into a contentious interaction that leads black men to prison, or in some cases, death. According to the ACLU, although, on average, black and white people enjoy cannabis in equal numbers, the former are four times more likely to be arrested.

It’s no secret that cannabis prohibition was born of racism. Around 650,000 Americans are arrested on marijuana charges each year, the majority of whom are black.

The War on Drugs is a catalyst for incalculable loss in black communities. It’s a traumatic policy that results in generational pain through mass incarceration, institutional supervision, and state-sanctioned death by organized terror squads disguised as the men and women meant to protect and serve. To end cannabis prohibition or, better still, the broader drug war would undoubtedly take away a powerful tool used by those that perpetrate hate and fear within black America.

But cannabis legalization alone is far too small of a stimulus package to bring about tangible social justice. The facts on the ground show that the white, male-dominated business interests of the industry have failed in their original promises of absolute equity. While many in the cannabis space offer promising visions of a socially conscious future for all who want it, it’s lip-service — well-meaning lip-service — that, to date, hasn’t moved the needle.

In a 2017 survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily, researchers found that black people owned only 4.3 percent of all businesses in the cannabis industry — either partially, or with a controlling stake. Digging deeper still, of all minority-owned businesses accounted for in the survey, only half touched the plant. The rest were ancillary businesses such as marketing firms or law offices. 

A significant factor in the ownership disparity in the cannabis industry has to do with structural racism. As writer Solomon Jones noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, it takes roughly $250,000 in capital to open up a dispensary, none of which is available through federal loans due to prohibition. When it comes to wealth disparity, black families have about $5 to every $100 white families have, making it almost impossible for the former to raise seed money.

And now that public officials and wealthy, white Americans who have successfully navigated the cannabis industry are creating barriers to ownership, preventing African Americans from accumulating wealth in the billion-dollar pot sector, they’re rigging the game, preventing them from earning a fair wage — or any wage at all.

In 2018, Robert Mayerson, the CEO of Patriot Care in Massachusetts, wrote a letter to the state’s Public Health Council asking them to continue banning convicted felons, mostly black and brown people, from working in the industry. 

“Allowing the participation of convicted drug felons in the medical marijuana industry undermines the Department’s interest to have a well-regulated, safe, and compliant program,” wrote Mayerson, the owner of a business that was, and is federally illegal. “Permitting those who have demonstrated the interest and willingness to ignore state and federal drug laws sends the wrong signals to those who would participate in the legal, regulated industry.”

As for social justice, cannabis legalization has so far fallen flat. The drug policy reform organization Drug Policy Alliance found that while overall arrests following the end of prohibition in states like Colorado and Alaska fell, black people and other people of color are still disproportionately arrested for cannabis crimes. In Alaska, for example, the arrest rate dropped 99 percent and 93 percent, respectively, for white and black Americans. The arrest rate for cannabis is nearly ten times more for black residents than for white ones, despite the change in the law. It’s the same in Washington DC, Colorado, and almost every other state with legal marijuana.

The past week since George Floyd’s death has been fraught with tense moments across the country, as peaceful protestors have clashed with violent police forces and outside agitators have tried to create chaos and panic in the street. Rome is burning, and President Trump is playing his fiddle, abdicating his responsibility in hopes that he can make it to the election in five months. And the op-ed pages are filled with the voices of those who would do better listening than talking.

This is not a rant against cannabis legalization, as, on the contrary, more freedom is what this country needs. But empty platitudes mean nothing without a solid plan of action, less they traumatize an entire generation and leave them behind. The cannabis industry was built on the back of black men and women who went to prison and died and are in the streets protesting.

They deserve more than mere empty promises.

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