“We lobbied at the state level for equity language, as well as with the Cannabis Control Commission,” Jefferson says. Massachusetts does have a social equity program, but it’s been delayed while it’s being revamped, and so far only one “economic empowerment” applicant (a status granted to people who’ve been arrested for drug crimes or live in communities with disproportionately high levels of drug arrests) has been granted a license.
Do the Right Thing
Increasing minority participation in cannabis
The legal cannabis industry is often referred to as the Green Rush, but so far it could just as easily be called the White Rush.
A 2017 report by Marijuana Business Daily found that only 5.7 percent of marijuana business owners and founders are Hispanic or Latino while 4.3 percent are African-American. Considering that African-Americans and Latinos have historically been arrested for drug-related offenses at an exponentially higher rate than whites, the disparity is striking—and those arrests are part of the problem. Most states ban people convicted of drug felonies from working at or owning cannabis businesses (in Illinois, they aren’t allowed to be medical marijuana patients). In 2013, the ACLU found that while blacks and whites used marijuana at roughly equal rates, black people were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010.
“Equity has kind of been an afterthought for a lot of states that are legalizing,” says Kamani Jefferson, president of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC). “It’s not really at the forefront, providing economic justice for folks whose lives were ruined around this.” That’s beginning to change as states and cities create initiatives aimed at bringing minorities into the industry. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento have established equity programs that set aside permits for low-income applicants and people from areas disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Last year, California passed a bill that allocates $10 million to support those programs, along with another bill that requires prosecutors to expunge the records of many people with cannabis convictions. However, the programs also have faced criticism over slow rollouts and funding shortfalls.
“To go from law to implementation is something that I don’t think any state has really done correctly,” Jefferson says. Last April, Maryland legislators passed a measure to help minority-owned businesses get licenses to sell medical marijuana, but only after two years of negotiations (none of the first 15 licenses were issued to minority-owned companies).
Earlier this year, Portland, Oregon, awarded its first grants to help communities harmed by cannabis prohibition. A total of $60,000 from marijuana tax revenue went to two marijuana businesses owned by African-Americans. Jefferson, who’s critical of equity initiatives that are too vague, says that giving financial assistance to minority applicants is one of the best ways to help them join the industry.
The MRCC, which aims to bridge the gap between government, businesses and consumers, also advocates for equity for minorities. “We lobbied at the state level for equity language, as well as with the Cannabis Control Commission,” Jefferson says. Massachusetts does have a social equity program, but it’s been delayed while it’s being revamped, and so far only one “economic empowerment” applicant (a status granted to people who’ve been arrested for drug crimes or live in communities with disproportionately high levels of drug arrests) has been granted a license.
Massachusetts is the first state to require that people from communities “disproportionately harmed” by drug crackdowns be included in the industry, as well as the first state that doesn’t bar convicted felons from participating. According to Jefferson, though, it’s still falling short. “I always talk to people from other states, they’re like, Massachusetts is doing it right,” Jefferson says. “I’m like no, they’re really not.” MRCC is advocating for 2 percent of marijuana revenue to be put toward the equity fund, as well as expungement of records of people who’ve been arrested for marijuana possession.
Restorative Justice Now
Donte Townsend, founder of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, agrees that record expungement and more funding for equity initiatives should be high priorities. While medical marijuana is legal in Illinois, recreational use is not—but that seems likely to change soon. According to Townsend, that means it’s the perfect time to advocate for what they’d like to see happen. “While these laws aren’t written in stone, we have the opportunity to sit in on so many meetings,” he says. “It’s like, shit, these lawmakers are coming to us for the answers, because half the people who gotta sign off on it don’t know shit about cannabis.” Chicago NORML has divisions for social injustice, equality, and education, and in addition to working with politicians and community activists, they’ve created a four-hour dispensary agent training program aimed at minorities.
Townsend would also like to see more community reinvestment of revenue from marijuana. “For the last five years, they’ve operated medically, but where’s all the money from cannabis going?” he says. “I feel like Chicago NORML has the opportunity to force lawmakers to do the right thing by this new tax revenue.”
By Julia Thiel