Why Cannabis Needs a Civil Rights Act

Cannabis Civil Rights Cannabis Now Magazine

Why does the cannabis industry need to be forced by government to stick to its social justice roots and give non-white people a chance to rake in the billions coming after legalization? And what will happen in places where elected officials don’t create a “marijuana affirmative action” program, giving out “drug war reparations?”


For an industry borne out of a freedom movement that still carries an air of righteousness, marijuana has had a hard time sticking to its social-justice roots — even when directed to do so by government, which, so far, has been the only guarantee for a cannabis industry run by anyone other than white people.

By now, it’s an undeniable and well-known fact that cannabis prohibition and the drug war have hurt black and brown people much more than whites. Even as marijuana legalization enjoys record support among all American voters — 85 percent of whom can access legal marijuana in some form — nonwhite people still account for upwards of 70 to 90 percent of marijuana-related arrests in some jurisdictions, despite white people using cannabis at similar or greater rates. And as black people continue to sit in prison for nonviolent marijuana crimes, white people are taking an even more disproportionately unfair share of the legal marijuana market’s tens of billions of dollars. Roughly one percent of the country’s legal cannabis dispensaries are black-owned, according to a widely-cited figure first published by BuzzFeed, and cursory glances around marijuana business conferences reveal a similar lack of minority participation in cannabis investor circles, cultivation, and everywhere else cannabis is sold for a profit on which taxes are paid.

From her seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, Cheryl Glenn saw all this.

“This is, as I call it, the ‘New Oil.’ This is the start of a multi-billion dollar industry. … [And] I was adamant,” she told Cannabis Now from her office in Annapolis, “that we were not going to have that in the state of Maryland. We were not going to have a medical-marijuana industry without African-American ownership.”

Including black-owned cannabis firms in Maryland’s green rush should have been easy to do — easier than other states, based on pure demographics alone. With 30 percent of the population African-American, Maryland is blacker than most states; Baltimore, which Glenn represents, is 65 percent black. Sheer numbers were in diversity’s favor. But just in case, when Glenn was the lead author on the state’s 2014 medical-marijuana law, she included what she thought was a guarantee: direction for the state’s new medical-cannabis commission to “actively seek racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity” when awarding licenses.

“‘The commission shall actively seek,’” she emphasized to me. “You can’t have language stronger than that.”

And yet, when the first round of 15 winners of cultivation licenses were announced last summer, not one was black-owned. Nor were any of the 102 applicants pre-approved to sell marijuana, announced in December. All this, in a state with a significant black population, directed to include black people. How did that happen? Glenn blames the commission’s “Keystone Kops”-level dysfunction, which has resulted in lawsuits as well as more action from elected officials. Glenn, now chairwoman of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus, earlier this year introduced a “reform act” for the state’s medical-marijuana program, deemed necessary even before it had a chance to begin.

Another five licenses will be awarded, this time with racial diversity emphasized even further. And should minority-owned firms have difficulty finding investors, 2 percent of all state marijuana sales are set aside into a fund, available as start-up capital for minority or women-owned marijuana businesses. Sounds fine, except not to some of the 15 original license-holders, who threatened the state with lawsuits. “We said, ‘Bring it on,’” Glenn told me. “This is the righteous thing to do… it is unconscionable that we would not consider racial equity in this new business.” (Meanwhile, other lawmakers suddenly discovered a sense of urgency; delaying Maryland’s cannabis program now, after years of delay, in order to ensure minority participation, would be unfair to patients, they claimed.)

The drama in Maryland highlights marijuana’s continuing and pervasive problem with diversity. But it also reveals an uncomfortable truth: Cannabis will not fix this problem by itself.

Like states with racist voter ID laws affected by the Voting Rights Act, and like employers and colleges required to abide by equal-employment laws and Affirmative-Action rules, the marijuana industry needs to be required by law to be racially equitable, advocates say — and the record proves them right.

“If government didn’t get involved? No. No way,” says Shara Gibson, founder of Washington, D.C.-based CaniVentures, which pushes for inclusive marijuana start-ups. “It’s a shame that we have to have government mandates and regulation that you have to include these people. It’s unfortunate, but the government does have a role in regulating how people have access to opportunity.”

But thus far, government has stepped in to hold marijuana accountable in only a few legal marijuana markets. There are no “equity programs” to speak of in Oregon, Colorado, or Washington, the country’s three oldest and most-established adult-use marijuana markets. In Massachusetts, where the legalization measure approved in November calls for cannabis tax income to be invested in minority communities, a Boston city council member is pushing state officials to include diversity language, but nothing concrete has resulted yet.

And in California, the crown jewel of American marijuana, only one city has thus far mandated minority participation in legal cannabis. Last week, Oakland, California finalized a first-of-its-kind “equity program,” specifically intended to guarantee racial diversity among local cannabis businesses. It took nearly a year of drawn-out fighting to get it done — with some of the most strident opposition coming from the marijuana industry.

Desley Brooks has sat on Oakland’s City Council since the early 2000s, and was sponsor of the 2011 laws permitting large-scale marijuana cultivation (at a time when pushing for a legal cannabis industry was drawing unwanted attention from the Obama-era Justice Department). Now, the city is seen as a statewide leader, and boasts some of the biggest marijuana companies in California, including mega-dispensary Harborside, which boasts $44 million in annual sales.

Oakland has a black population comparable to Maryland’s, though at roughly 30 percent each white, Latino, and black, Oakland is much more diverse. Nonetheless, the city has one only black-owned dispensary—and in a city where unlicensed marijuana clubs are tolerated, black people still comprise 77 percent of the people arrested for marijuana.

Last May, months before California voters legalized adult-use marijuana by a wide margin, Brooks and a black colleague on the council unveiled first-of-its-kid plans for drug-war “reparations.” For every permit the city doled out to a marijuana firm, another “equity” permit would have to be issued. Equity permits would be reserved either for someone arrested for marijuana, or someone living in area of Oakland impacted most heavily by the War on Drugs.

The proposal immediately met with opposition from the marijuana industry, repeated ad nauseum in local major newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle. Weed entrepreneurs acknowledged the drug war’s biased impact on nonwhite people and the current diversity problem—but also suggested that it wasn’t they who were to blame for it. One prominent marijuana business person compared the equity program to a car crash, in which one of the less-injured victims is forced to pay restitution to another victim more grievously hurt.

“In principle, I support the idea… I support African-Americans getting into cannabis,” Chip Moore, the CEO of 4 and 20 Blackbirds, an Oakland marijuana delivery service, told Cannabis Now. Moore is black. “But there’s this false narrative of ‘Us vs. them.’ You would go to these meetings, and people would say, ‘You’re taking this away from us, and not letting us in.’”

It didn’t help that Brooks kept pushing — proposing that Oakland marijuana businesses had to give part of their ownership away to local people of color, or that owners had to live in the city, suggestions that marijuana industry supporters and lawyers deemed “an absolute effort to destroy any cannabis industry in Oakland.” Businesses threatened to move to other cities. Brooks was lambasted in the paper. But in the end, everybody stayed put.

The more radical suggestions like ownership-sharing and the residency requirement were dropped. The city will have two phases of marijuana permits, one involving the equity applicants, who will also be able to access no-interest loans and business development — the second, open to everyone, including the outside and overseas investors active everywhere else.

The episode demonstrated a few things. It took Oakland, historic home of the Black Panthers, nearly a year to institute a concrete plan to guarantee minority ownership in marijuana. It was fiercely resisted by the marijuana industry — which, if that reparations program was too radical, never really suggested an alternative plan in its place. (To Brooks, that means “they didn’t want it,” she said.)

Forget equality — if marijuana legalization is going to have racial diversity, something else will have to be done on a different level.

For other cities to have equity programs, “you’re going to need a Desley Brooks across the state, doing what she did,” said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. And other cities don’t have that. Instead, Huffman — a sponsor of the state’s successful marijuana legalization measure, who briefly opposed confirmation of the state’s “weed czar” for a lack of outreach to minority communities — plans to push for equality on the state level.

The language of Prop. 64, the state’s marijuana legalization measure, provides for an “advisory committee” tasked with overseeing equality efforts. Huffman is vying for a seat, and she wants Brooks there, too. “What I want to ensure is that everything we fought for in the ballot measure is open for minority people, for black people, for brown people,” she said, vowing to “legislate” equity requirements like Oakland’s — if not even stronger. “I would think people should be required to do business with African-Americans and Latinos.”

TELL US, do you think the cannabis industry needs a formal structure to increase diversity?

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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