Cannabis has a race problem
Cannabis—as an industry, a lifestyle, a drug, as medicine—has a serious race problem. Even a common name for the plant, marijuana, is racist. Rather than having me tell you all about it, I thought I’d invite Black people who work in various aspects of the cannabis industry to share their own experiences instead. After that, we will also hear the stories of other Black people in cannabis who aren’t able to share directly because they are incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis offenses. At the bottom are A LOT OF resources to learn more.
Before we get started, some stats: According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to get arrested for cannabis possession compared to white Americans, despite both groups consuming it at similar rates. In some states, Black people were up to six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.
Think legalization is the answer? It helps a lot and it’s necessary. But it’s not the whole story. In states where weed went legal in any form from 2010-2018, racial disparities in cannabis enforcement actually increased. And, as you’ll see below, Black Americans are not getting their fair share of the pie when it comes to opportunities in the legal markets—especially not when considering how much more they’re criminalized for the exact same behavior as other cannabis consumers.
This is going to be a long newsletter. We said we are willing to do the work to combat anti-racism, right? Read, listen and find out how to take action. Buckle up. This is just the beginning of the work.
If you’re not ready to address white supremacy and racial inequalities, If you can’t face the communities who are still being destroyed by broken windows policing, and if you’re only down to make money without recognizing your privilege: the cannabis space ain’t for you
Jacob Plowden, deputy director at the Cannabis Cultural Association
“‘If race wasn’t an issue within the industry, then the CCA wouldn’t exist’ - Nelson Guerrero, 2017 (CannaCultural, Executive Director and Co-Founder). Race has been an issue in America when the ancestors of Black people were kidnapped and brought to this country with only the future of being property and economic chattel.
With only 4.3 percent of cannabis businesses being Black-owned, I’d say there is a massive problem. The ACLU, Stanford University, and NYU just released two published findings that show statistically despite legalization, Black and Latinx communities are still disproportionately subjected to marijuana-related arrests. Even the vast majority of mainstream events and panels around the industry are always primarily white and cis-gendered.
[Being a Black person in the cannabis industry] has been rewarding while extremely difficult. I feel like when some people see my Black skin enter the room, they expect to see a victim.
I’ve walked into rooms with my co-founders and certain individuals would only shake his hand and ask if I’m an intern or an assistant. Even events that I’ve curated and organized, there have been assumptions that I was simply ‘the help.’
I’ve noticed how much harder I’ve had to work to present my value. For me, I’ve had to taper my expectations realizing how I could be used for my intellect and my image. Some cannabis companies have attempted to tokenize Black and Brown organizations under the guise of allyship or support while ignoring the larger components of systematic racism and economic disparities.
In short, a lot of companies are half stepping when it comes to being authentic about this work. We have to alter the way we have been legalizing cannabis on a societal scale. Cannabis legalization shouldn’t be built around solely monetary gain but addressing it as national health and socioeconomic crisis.
[Ways to address this include] stewardship: provide the legacy market/black market with transitional support and resources to transform into compliant businesses. Developing worker cooperatives, craft cultivation, consumption spaces, and other tiered licenses beyond dispensaries can provide a much aspect of ownership for Black communities. Examining how much of the broken American infrastructures will need to be hybridized for the cannabis industry on a national scale.”
Today we have an industry of primarily White men who look at cannabis as "grown-up" in their hands, reducing the days of pre-legalization to dreadlocks and corner boys.
Saki Fenderson; community organizer, award-winning speaker and author founder of Tainted Love BK - an educational platform for plant-based medicine's and cannabis cooking classes.
“I KNOW, 100%, that the cannabis industry has a race problem! Most of us know the history of Harry Anslinger spearheading cannabis prohibition to lock-up Blacks, Mexicans and jazz performers (for whom he some sort of special bile). Most recently, we've learned that during his presidency, Richard Nixon created an anti-Marijuana campaign to specifically target and vilify African-American and Hippie counter-culture movements. Today, we have an industry of primarily White men who look at cannabis as "grown-up" in their hands, reducing the days of pre-legalization to dreadlocks and corner boys.
You can see this in the folks who sit in leadership positions or hold major shares of multi-state organizations (Big Canna) who own and even manage smaller canna-businesses—and who even sit on municipal regulating commissions. Most of those people do not reflect the community who during 80+ years of criminalization battled the government for their cannabis medicine, developed the culture and even culled the consumer base from which the current legislated industry relies.
I have been active in the legalization of the "new" cannabis industry since 2015. Within those five years, I've gone from being one of two, maybe three Black people in a room discussing legal, business, tech, science or wellness aspects of the industry to seeing rooms filled with Black, Latinx, Asian and still very very few, if any, NDN peoples. This has been an uplifting experience. We are still way behind in access and even information but the increased presence has definitely put fuel back in my tank as an advocate.
The Black community needs to be a lot more aware and active in the legislation and regulation of cannabis. The plant has been a part of our community as a financial resource, medicine, and yes, even an illicit drug for millennia. In light of the good and to spite the bad, if we do not ensure criminal justice reforms, ownership, community rehabilitation, medical programs, and re-education across the board, legalization will hurt us.
The legal industry can only survive if the legacy (black) market is destroyed. That means that physical and financial access to the plant will not be accessible to the people. That means that resources that were taken away by the War on Drugs will not be returned to those communities with legitimized cannabis funds. That means that access to sustainable income and wealth will be removed from our communities. Finally, that means that the success of the White cannabis industry will be built on MORE imprisoned Black and Brown bodies to destroy the pre-existing market.”
You cannot make money off cannabis without fighting for those who suffered to get you here
Ryan Robles; president and CEO of Hotline Agency, a Los Angeles-based public relations company that represents cannabis clients
“Being a Black business owner, I’ve experienced an unfathomable amount of racism in my career, from brands, other business owners, and even people who worked with and for me. All of this in three of the most progressive cities in the U.S. (SF, LA, NYC), which makes me feel deeply for other POC trying to run their businesses effectively in parts of this country where racism is even more prevalent and overlooked. I’d also like to note that as a cis-male, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it must be for Black womxn and nonbinary folks trying to run a business, get their voices heard, and live their lives safely.
As a queer POC in cannabis, I’ve been particularly disappointed with the silence from some of the white-owned brands and industry people normally very happy to occupy space – especially those who are often quick to boast about their progressiveness. Within the cannabis community, we should make a conscious effort moving forward to support Black-owned businesses as much as possible, as well as all POC-owned ventures. White-owned brands need to have the loudest voices when it comes to calling for prison reformation, and helping the 40,000+ people still locked up for nonviolent cannabis crimes. You cannot make money off cannabis without fighting for those who suffered to get you here.
We should strive to remember which of our white friends, colleagues and peers put their money where their mouths are and those that showed up for us in other ways… and which ones that did not. I can’t believe I still need to say this in 2020 but being queer does not automatically make you anti-racist. Having Black friends does not mean you don’t benefit from systematic racism. Posting on social media does not mean that you have done enough. We all have to do more, but my white peers… you need be the loudest.”
It is appalling that a plant weaponized against communities of color is now a commodity creating an economy that fails to prioritize the restoration of these communities.
Dr. Rachel Knox; board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association
“I have been involved in the cannabis industry as a clinician (a cannabis medicine specialist and endocannabinologist), as a policy and regulator consultant, as an educator, and as an entrepreneur. At every level of my involvement, I have battled the incompetence (as it relates to the history of cannabis, both pre-prohibition and post, the science advanced of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, and social equity) that is shaping local, state, and national cannabis reform. There are so many parallels and intersections between the history of the plant and the history of the black experience in America, so it's a bit ironic to be a black physician entrepreneur in the space because I feel the effects of the war on black people, of the war on natural medicine, and of the myriad systemic barriers to becoming a successful entrepreneur in the space all at once.
The cannabis industry is pretty tone-deaf when it comes to racial equity. One of the greatest harms of cannabis prohibition was the “War on Drugs,” which criminalized black and brown people for its use, resulting in the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws in these communities. This disparity has contributed to the disruption of the black family, and the intergenerational marginalization and disinvestment in the wellbeing of black and brown people, impacting every determinant of health.
It is appalling that a plant weaponized against communities of color is now a commodity creating an economy that fails to prioritize the restoration of these communities.
Restoration should be a central focus of legalization and regulation and should be core to the mission of every cannabis enterprise. Because the overwhelming majority of legal cannabis operators are white, it is not surprising that this is not a priority. In light of this, I think it's safe to say that the cannabis industry has a racial injustice problem.”
My experience as a Black woman in the cannabis industry has been necessary for me to become the multi-dimensional being who happens to be a Black woman that I am today.
Megon Dee; CEO and founder of Oracle Infused Wellness Co.
“The idea of race is a societal structure designed to create division amongst the same beings, invented for the sole purpose of reinforcing inequality. This social construct is a human being problem that is not isolated to one industry alone. The idea of race divides us all up into categories. Race is psychological warfare. Race is exemplified in every aspect of our lives.
My experience as a Black woman in the cannabis industry has been necessary for me to become the multi-dimensional being who happens to be a Black woman that I am today. A few words to describe my experience include EXPLOITATION. HYPER-VISUAL. OPPRESSED. DISPOSABLE.
The legal cannabis industry was not created to amplify Black creators or entrepreneurs. The continuous uttering of ‘social equity’ is more gaslighting, a tactic of implying hope used repeatedly against our people attempting to survive in a society that was never intended for us to thrive in. The illegal cannabis industry was created for the demise of the Black and POC's communities. Similar to our everyday society living dual realities, duality trickled down into cannabis, segregation of sorts. The cannabis industry becoming normalized on a legitimate level was a chance for a wrong being made right, and that hasn't happened.”
I'm sorry to say you will be hard-pressed to find any black-owned licensed cannabis companies in NY, NJ, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania, to name a few states
Roz McCarthy, founder and CEO of Minorities For Medical Marijuana
“You have an industry that was built on the back of Black and brown people, however legalization, state by state, allowed policymakers to create barriers (high application fees, surety bonds, capital requirements, etc) for individuals of color to enter the industry. Therefore, you see well-funded business conglomerates come together and box out black-owned and small and businesses who would like to participate in the industry. I'm sorry to say you will be hard-pressed to find any black-owned licensed cannabis companies in NY, NJ, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania, to name a few states…..That's the reason why advocacy organizations like Minorities for Medical Marijuana are in existence fighting for opportunities at the grassroots level.
Creating more entrepreneurs in the space has to be intentional—it starts with policy at the government level, which requires licensed companies to do business with Black suppliers and Black-owned businesses who can provide ancillary support to the industry. Not everyone is going to have a license to cultivate, process, and/or [operate] in retail cannabis, however, the industry needs to be supported with ancillary businesses, just like any other industry. There can be millionaires made in supporting roles such as finance, accounting, logistics, security, branding & marketing, training, and education.”
Here are the stories of two Black Americans currently incarcerated via Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit that provides legislative advocacy, re-entry aid as well as release and record cleaning services for those with non-violent cannabis offenses (click through to donate and learn more):
Corvain grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He loved fashion, and after high school, he went to work at a clothing store. His passion led to him opening a small clothing business in his old Los Angeles neighborhood. In 2013, Corvain was arrested for his role in a cannabis distribution operation. Despite his minor role in the operation, due to his refusal to testify against others and a federal “three strikes law” for two other possession offenses, Corvain is now serving life in prison.
Corvain is a devoted father and son but unfortunately has been unable to see his family since he was transferred from California to a federal prison in Louisiana. Although the prior charges that led to his life sentence have now been reduced to misdemeanors under California law, the Supreme Court has refused to reconsider Corvain’s sentence. As of now, his only hope is that President Trump will grant him clemency and commute his life sentence. You can sign Corvain’s petition asking President Trump to commute his sentence here.
Ferrell Scott is serving a life sentence for transporting cannabis. His mandatory life sentence is not because he has a dangerous or violent past, but because he declined a 12-year plea deal, thinking that was an excessive sentence for marijuana. His only other convictions were for small-time drugs, misdemeanors, and driving infractions. Even the former prosecutor in his case now acknowledges that a life sentence was too harsh. Ferrell is fighting for clemency to be reunited with his family and two kids, Skylar and Serrell.
To hear Ferrell's story in his own words, and the stories of others suffering from three strikes laws, go to: https://www.thirdstrikecampaign.com/home/ferrell-scott
Additional Resources (this is a stacked as hell list, don’t skip this part!)
Cannaclusive has released its Accountability List which is a line-for-line accounting of how cannabis businesses have addressed the Black Lives Matter movement and issues of racism in their own companies and communities. It’s masterful and it’s the direct call-out needed in the cannabis industry. I particularly appreciate the designation regarding whether the business directly touches plants or is ancillary—there is a noted dearth of Black growers.
Cannaclusive has also added a diversity and accountability consultation section to its website, geared towards cannabis companies
Head over to the AFROPUNK Instagram Live channel for weekly conversations though the cannabis lens curated by Solonje Burnett with Black thought leaders and entrepreneurs making an impact in music, agriculture, beauty, mindfulness, nutrition, sustainability, sexual empowerment and more
Dee offers her introduction to cannabis course, which is for anyone who wants to learn about the plant from the bottom-up.
Robles suggested this list of organizations to read up on and contribute to: Black Lives Matter, Last Prisoner Project, National Bail Out, The Weldon Project: Mission Green, Equal Justice Initiative, Black Aids Institute, Black Trans Travel Fund, Trans Justice Funding Project
Fenderson offers the following list: Drug Policy Alliance, Minority Cannabis Business Association, and even more locally like Cage-Free Cannabis in Los Angeles, Marijuana Justice in Virginia, SuperNovaWomen in California’s Bay Area, Cannabis Cultural Association in New York City, Cannaclusive
McCarthy suggests the following: “I of course would recommend you considering becoming a member of M4MM but I also recommend MCBA, SuperNova Women, Hood Incubator, and DACO.”
Next week: a comprehensive list of social media accounts that should be on your radar! And more resources. Substack is yelling at me, saying this is too long. Shut the fuck up, Substack. ‘Til next time…
Thank you for reading Cannabitch and especially for paying special attention to it this week. If you liked what you read, consider sending it to a friend who may appreciate it.