Contributed Content by AskGrowers
Since the first adult-use cannabis dispensaries in the United States began opening in 2017, recreational marijuana has been an absolute boon to the American economy. Sales, tax revenue, investment, you name it – the numbers are off the charts.
Last year, even with the coronavirus pandemic keeping millions of people at home, the U.S. legal cannabis market posted $17.5 billion in sales, a 45 percent gain over 2019. Projections for 2021 have the industry eclipsing $20 million in sales.
Larger marijuana companies average more than $50 million in revenue per month. Curaleaf, America’s biggest cannabis corporation, reported a single quarter sales record of $260.3 million during the first three months of 2021.
How lucrative is the industry here? Some firms have traded hands for as much as $4 billion.
That’s what makes the practice of inequity in the business so strange. Thanks to a number of factors, especially political influence and plain greed, the ethnic groups most harmed by nearly a century of federal prohibition have had the smallest say in shaping the plant’s legal future. As Caucasian men dominate the industry, African Americans and Hispanic Americans have been left behind.
This is the story of how we got here, and how states are now listening closer to underrepresented voices to begin compensating for decades of disparity.
A Racially Motivated Ban
Not all Americans are enjoying the cannabis riches proportionally – and it’s not because of a lack of desire or work ethic, but a rather simple lack of access. African American and Hispanic Americans, who make up about a third of the country’s population, control less than 20 percent of the industry, according to Drug Policy Alliance – a New York-based non-profit advocacy group.
The numbers fall in line with the broader business picture across the U.S.: a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that ethnic minorities owned 18.3 percent of all legal businesses in 2019.
But cannabis is unlike other enterprises in that has put tens of millions of people in jail. Those people were – and continue to be – African American and Hispanic.
First, a quick history. When European settlers made their way to what’s now the United States, nobody on the Mayflower thought cannabis was something to get blazed on. But the plant’s industrial value was crucially important. The settlers used the durable hemp fibers to make rope, paper, clothing, and even sails.
Cannabis became so important to the American economy, the Virginia Assembly in the early 1600s even forced farmers to grow it. At one point, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland even made the plant legal tender – a legitimate currency for buying food and just about anything else.
By the 1800s, everybody knew of cannabis extract as a common medicinal compound. At least a half-dozen of the most popular 1850s-era medicines sold in U.S. pharmacies had extracts of the plant.
Unrest in Mexico brought tons of new immigrants to Texas and Louisiana in the early 1900s. And that’s when people’s opinion of the plant began to change. The Mexican immigrants brought with them their native customs, one of which was smoking “marihuana” to relax. Americans knew all about cannabis, but few had ever heard the Spanish word for it. They didn’t realize that marijuana was something they already had in their medicine cabinets.
The media soon began to capitalize on public fear of “disruptive Mexicans,” and using marijuana was lumped in with all of the group’s other racially stereotypical sins, like drinking alcohol in excess and stealing.
Massive job loss and unrest during the Great Depression made Americans resent the migrants and their “evil weed” even more, and dozens of states responded by banning cannabis altogether. The government’s way of controlling people by stereotyping their habits was incredibly effective, and it soon became a national strategy for marginalizing all minority groups.
During the Great Depression, infamous U.S. narcotics chief Harry Anslinger summed up his problems with cannabis in one brutally foul claim:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers,” Anslinger said. “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.”
That image became the backdrop for a nationwide pot ban in 1937, which Congress replaced in 1970 with a law ranking illegal drugs based on their level of danger and potential for abuse. Cannabis ended up in Schedule I — a category for the country’s most harmful drugs with “no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
In just a few decades, cannabis went from a popular medicine to a street drug with absolutely no medical value, just because Mexicans used it.
Since American officials like Anslinger had already hammered home the stereotypes, Hispanics and eventually African Americans bore the brunt of the cannabis crackdown. And the penalties were no joke.
A federal law passed in 1951 mandated that people convicted of marijuana possession spent a minimum of 2 to 10 years in jail and pay up to $20,000. Individual states could choose more severe penalties, and many did. In Nevada, for example, first time possession could land violators in jail for 20 years to life. Adults caught selling the plant to minors – however small the quantity – were subject to the death penalty.
Disparities in Cannabis Arrests Continue Today
Despite making up only about one-third of the U.S. population, African American and Hispanic Americans accounted for nearly half of all weed arrests last year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
In New York City, African Americans were still arrested for violating marijuana possession laws at nearly four times the rates of Caucasians in 2020, even though both ethnicities consumed marijuana at similar rates. The same report found Latinos were also detained and jailed at higher rates for cannabis than Caucasians.
Another 2020 analysis, by the American Civil Liberties Union, found that Black people had a higher chance of being jailed than White people in every single U.S. state. The ACLU’s 2020 findings were similar to a 2013 report from the organization, which concluded that African Americans were arrested at higher rates than Caucasians for marijuana possession in over 96 percent of U.S. counties.
But why? The answer depends on who you ask.
Civil rights and marijuana advocates argue the gaping disparity in cannabis arrests are nothing more than racism carried over from the past. The activists argue that as long as marijuana is banned federally, police will continue to target minority groups that history has traditionally stereotyped as weed users.
“America’s decades-long prohibition of marijuana was founded upon racism and bigotry,” said Eric Altieri, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Marijuana reform won’t completely end racism, but it will certainly be a part of reforming a broken system.”
A handful of interviewed police sheriffs disputed that claim. They said arrest numbers have nothing to do with race. Instead, sheriffs and law enforcement leaders across cities in New York, Ohio, Louisiana, Nebraska, Florida and California contend that cannabis charges normally come as part of a packaged deal.
More than half of marijuana charges result from when police investigate other alleged crimes, explained Mike Ranatza, head of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. In other words, an inquiry into a car crash, domestic violence incident, weapons, theft or other common crimes can also land suspects a weed citation if responding officers find illegal quantities of the plant.
“There’s no denying that police across the country unfairly targeted minorities several decades ago for marijuana,” Ranatza said. “But I can say with complete confidence that’s not the case anymore.”
Failed Early Attempts to Make Up for the Past
Social equity has become a hot topic of conversation in recent months as state and local officials promise to begin making up for over 100 years of cannabis injustice.
The idea sounds good, but it’s incredibly difficult to execute. Nearly all attempts to level the playing field have come in industry ownership, in which states have put in incentives to help more minorities own dispensary, grow house, production facility and testing lab businesses.
Giving traditionally marginalized groups the chance to lead only makes sense, Altieri said, since they were by far and away the biggest victims of prohibition.
“Black and Brown lives matter,” Altieri said, “and this is an example of tangible steps we can take toward dismantling the power structures that perpetuate injustice.”
But the early attempts so far have largely failed – and often in disastrous fashion.
In Nevada, an infamous dispensary licensing scandal that promised to give preference for half of the state’s limited store licenses to companies with minority owners and executives instead resulted in more Caucasian men landing new dispensaries. Just 15 companies, all but one with White owners, out of 127 applicants received one of the lucrative licenses back in 2018. Each license was worth an estimated $10 million at the time.
In Massachusetts, the mayor of a small town took cash bribes, campaign donations and gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana business owners and in exchange gave them local approval of their licenses, which were necessary for the weed store owners to open up shop.
And as long as state and local governments control the industries, activists say social equity will take a back seat to the greed of those in power.
“When you let a small group of people making five-figure salaries divvy out permits worth millions of dollars, you’re setting up an area for shady backdoor deals to happen,” Altieri said. “Federal prohibition still presents enormous problems.”
Hope on the Horizon
The dialogue surrounding American culture and race relations has shifted drastically over the past several months. Officials are crafting more policies around race perhaps than ever in the wake of African American George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a White police officer in May 2020. Statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic and disparity in available medical care between Americans of different races has also left a lasting impression.
Cannabis activists hope the plant is a beneficiary of the progressive wave in Washington D.C. They’re keeping their fingers crossed for federal legalization in the next year, but also optimistic that racial equity in the industry will finally come in some form or fashion. Most importantly, they want social justice to be taken seriously.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Frank Hawkins, a Las Vegas-based marijuana lobbyist and dispensary owner. “But we’ve heard this story before. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Marijuana-legal states seem to be paying attention.
For starters, several states this year have removed small-scale marijuana crimes from the records of people convicted during prohibition. There’s no way to give back the lost time spent in jail, Hawkins admitted, but wiping criminal records clean of the weed offenses at least helps protect people when they apply for jobs.
Some states, like Colorado, Arizona and California, are working to seal the cannabis offenses, while others, including Illinois and Vermont, are letting previous offenders expunge their weed crimes completely.
Sealing the records doesn’t completely erase marijuana crimes; it just makes them unavailable to the public. A potential employer could still find in a background check that someone was convicted of a misdemeanor, but just wouldn’t be able to see the nature of the crime. On the other hand, a pure expungement wipes any mention of the offense from all of a person’s records.
A handful of states have also included language on social equity to require a certain percent of cannabis businesses to be owned by minorities. And this time, the diversity initiatives are supposedly more than merely lip-service.
In Nevada, the state infamous for its failed diversity and inclusion dispensary initiative, officials are throwing out the corrupt scoring contest used in the past. Instead, when considering license owners for the state’s new cannabis consumption lounges, as many as 35 of the 70 permits will be available only to minority applicants.
The five most recent states to pass recreational marijuana – New York, Virginia, New Mexico, Alabama and Connecticut – have all included language on racial diversity in ownership and social equity in their presiding cannabis laws.
While the language doesn’t guarantee anything, it’s a significant step up from just two years ago, advocates say. As recently as 2019, none of the 11 adult-use states at the time had any formal mention of racial equality in their principal cannabis laws.
“The future is bright, for sure,” Altieri said. “We’re much further along than before, but we still have a long way to go.”