Making Marijuana Equitable


This post is the first in a series of blog posts written by the SSDP Career Services Diversity and Inclusion Intern, Jan Farias. The purpose of this internship was to analyze the SSDP Career Services Program and identify concrete ways that our organization can better serve marginalized communities. 

Over the past decade, marijuana legalization has become mainstream, with over half of U.S. adults believing that marijuana should be legal. In November of this year, eight more states legalized marijuana for medical or adult use. While this shift in public opinion is greatly beneficial and supports a more compassionate and progressive healthcare and justice system, there is still a dark side of legalization that is often overlooked. Historically, drug policies have disproportionately affected communicates of color, even though black and brown communities use marijuana at the same rate that white people do. Even in legal states, this institutional oppression manifests as a lack of access for people of color to own and operate their own cannabis dispensary. Out of the three thousand existing dispensaries, less than three dozen are black owned, which makes up about only 1%. Lack of funds, discriminatory law enforcement, and stigma dissuade communities of color from opening their own business. The people who have been most victimized by prohibition have no chance of taking advantage of laws that could give them better opportunities in life. 

National Cannabis Festival, Washington, DC, April 23, 2016, photo by Ben Droz

One of the biggest reasons for the lack of diversity in the cannabis industry is the  accessibility of applying for licenses. Unless you have prior experience or a helpful connection, it’s incredibly difficult trying to navigate the not-so-transparent application process. Even then, anyone with a prior conviction or history of incarceration can be rejected. This is the case in Washington State, where a scoring system can rate you based on your run ins with the law. A misdemeanor is worth four points, and eight points is a death sentence for applications. With the rate of arrest higher for people of color, this proves to be another obstacle for potential business owners. Dr. Malik Burnett, a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, has called provisions like this discriminatory against people of color and “particularly invasive given the fact that enforcement of marijuana laws have historically been biased against people of color”. 

Many potential business owners of color may also feel stigmatized or alienated from their community for trying to pursue a career in the industry. Black and Hispanic community members are concerned when a lucrative cannabis business opens up nearby. A history of mass incarceration, violence and prosecution has formed a cultural resistance barring some communities of color from even considering a cannabis dispensary in their neighborhood. Vulnerability is also a common feeling amongst minorities questioning whether or not to enter into an industry that is not yet fully legal at the federal level. All of these hesitations result in an industry that is saturated with white men poised to get rich selling weed— while impoverished black and brown people face imprisonment for doing the same thing in illicit markets. 

Although federal marijuana legalization will help repair and reduce the harm that the War on Drugs has caused, we need to remain aware of the institutional injustices that remain. As a woman of color who has been affected by adverse drug policies, I see the importance of shifting power into the hands of those who have been the most oppressed. If you don’t identify as a person of color but are concerned about diversity shortfalls in the cannabis business, seek out and support black and brown business owners, read more about the topic (several recommendations below), and engage your friends and family in these conversations. The more we learn and become aware of our own implicit biases and prejudices, the better allies we can become in dismantling systems that prey on minorities. If we can distribute wealth and power more equally among people, regardless of their identity, we will all benefit together. 


Recommended Readings: 

Whitewashing the Green Rush: How Black People Are Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom 

Six Reasons African Americans Aren’t Breaking Into Cannabis Industry

Why Black People Are Being Left Out of the Weed Boom

DRUGS The Unbearable Whiteness of the Marijuana Industry