Cannabis Decriminalization Offers Opportunity for Reparations

Outdoor Grow from Canada

The legal cannabis industry has almost everything; billions of dollars in sales, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue — fuel for schools, drug-abuse programs and police — and thousands of new jobs. What it doesn’t have is meaningful diversity.


The green rush is still overwhelmingly white, and everybody knows it — nobody (honest) is denying it.

Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor, told the Associated Press that this isn’t a new problem and that solutions are elusive.

“It’s a problem that has been recognized but has proven to be relatively intractable,” he said.

The cannabis industry doesn’t yet have the kind of (embarrassing lack of) diversity data published by Silicon Valley firms, but according to a BuzzFeed report published last year, Black people — who are four times more likely to be arrested for petty marijuana crimes than white people — own about 1 percent of the country’s legal pot shops.

But quantification is almost unnecessary: Look around at a cannabis business conference or entrepreneurs’ summit; the investors, the founders — they are almost all white, and they are almost all men.

The same people who escaped punishment for using and growing cannabis during prohibition are the ones taking control of the industry — and the people who went to jail are merely customers.

It’s not a new story, but that’s the thing with systemic inequality — it’s entrenched. It doesn’t go away.

It’s embarrassing, awkward and inconvenient. Most of us would like to forget about it and think about other things. And that’s why we have things like homelessness and poverty.

In the industry’s defense, this isn’t by design, There are no explicit policies banning Black people from cannabis industry participation… at least not directly.

Indirectly — there absolutely are.

People convicted of a drug-related felony, such as growing or selling cannabis — now a highly marketable skill — will find it more difficult to obtain a state license for marijuana commercial activity in most states. And as the ACLU has said repeatedly, Black and Latinos are much more likely to be arrested for cannabis than their white peers.

The AP tells the story of Andre Shavers, who was arrested with a quarter-ounce of cannabis in Oakland, California, in 2007. Possession of cannabis is supposed to be the absolutely last thing on police’s to-do list in Oakland, where voters made marijuana crimes the lowest priority for police in 2004. Shavers spent five years on felony probation.

A criminal record makes securing a minimum-wage job difficult — have fun obtaining a bank loan or attracting investors to start a business. Most states are issuing precious few licenses to recreational or medical cannabis dispensaries and growers, reserving opportunities for people with political connections. Again, it helps to be a white man: 65 percent of elected offices in the country are held by white men, who make up 31 percent of the population.

Which means the marijuana industry has made it. It’s as American as Silicon Valley, which is to say, the best new jobs in America are carrying on the grand legacies of redlining.

In the case of cannabis, however, the irony is particularly stark: Black and Brown people are being denied economic opportunity by an industry that began life as a social justice movement — before capital showed up to steer the ship.

By now, it’s widely understood that the problem will not fix itself — that the cannabis industry cannot be trusted to correct its glaring racial opportunity gap. The solution will have to come from government — but even that might not be enough. Because, if you recall, there’s a bit of a close relationship between business and government in America.

Tito Jackson is a Boston city councilman and candidate to replace current city Mayor Marty Walsh, who staunchly opposed Massachusetts’s successful legalization measure.

“The people who got locked up should not get locked out of this industry,” Jackson told the AP.

Nobody would disagree (at least publicly), but what’s the fix?

Massachusetts’s legalization law expressly states that minorities should have a stake in the new industry, but stops short of explaining exactly how that will happen. In other states, pushes toward a cannabis “civil rights act” — a law mandating equal participation in business, just as laws had to be passed mandating equal participation in voting and in education — have been hard slogs. In Maryland, such a law died in committee.

In California, the closest to guaranteed equal participation has come in Oakland, where it took more than a year of tense negotiation — and threats to leave the city entirely from marijuana businesses — before a plan to reserve licenses for Black and Brown people became law.

Until now, Black entrepreneurs have been left largely to themselves to figure out how to enjoy the green rush’s benefits.

Shavers, for example, runs a Bay Area-based delivery service called The Medical Strain. For now, he doesn’t need an expensive license to do it. In the future? He will. He’ll need help from the city or the state to do it.

“It’s almost like, what do they call that? Reparations,” he said.

Shavers danced around it, but reparations are exactly what are needed — and what should happen. Cannabis owes certain people a living. If the debt goes unpaid, it will be marijuana’s great and everlasting shame.

TELL US, do you support reparations through the cannabis industry?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

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