What Can We Do About It?
I attended a legal cannabis event for the first time a few years ago. It was in New York City.
I noticed a few unexpected things. Among them were the large percentage of people wearing suits and the high number of women executives in attendance. Bravo! But the thing that surprised me the most was the fact that, among more than 300 attendees, there were only five black women and ONE black man in attendance. Yes, just one.
Interestingly, the day the writing of this article commenced, I got a text from a good friend, Marvin Washington,Super Bowl Champion turned cannabis activist and entrepreneur: “Attended MJ Biz Con Next in New Orleans last Saturday. 7 blacks in attendance Saturday. I counted them.”
Not a lot had changed since that first investor event I attended four years ago.
This phenomenon was confirmed by a story relayed by Al Foreman, co-founder and chief investment officer at cannabis investment firm Tuatara Capital. “Recently I was scheduled to speak at an industry conference in Los Angeles. In the weeks leading up to the event I was introduced to another senior black professional who I made plans to meet for the first time at the conference. Needless to say we were both taken aback by how easy it was to spot each other in a sea of 1000+ people as we were two of the only three black men there at the time,” he said.
What’s the Real Color of Cannabis?
Weed and cannabis culture have often been associated with black people, both in positive and negative ways.
Let’s take music as an example of a more upbeat association: Over time, we’ve heard many of the most prominent black artists sing pot’s praises. The herb is mentioned in countless Bob Marley songs, in Dr. Dre lyrics, in many of Peter Tosh’s albums, in Ray Charles’ most controversial tunes, in De La Soul’s hip hop records, and in some of the most entertaining Spanish-language music you’ll ever listen to. Cannabis has both inspired and been the subject of black art and culture in general, with music the most notable of many examples.
On the other hand, we’ve seen black communities heavily targeted by prohibition policies like the infamous War on Drugs, started by President Richard Nixon in the early ‘70s. This sort of targeting has furthered the connection between blacks and weed in popular imagery – although this time, in a negative way.
As very clearly evidenced in this ACLU slideshow, for every 10 white people arrested for marijuana possession, 37 black people were arrested – even though consumption levels were pretty similar. In other words, blacks have been almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.
‘The Blind Side’
While black people (and arguably Latinxs) paid the highest price of cannabis’ illegality, they also got the short end of the stick when weed was made legal.
As Jodie Emery mentioned in a recent “Wonder Women of Weed” show, “Unfortunately, we are seeing that the same old boys network, the big money from the grey hairs are moving in and kind of putting in a ‘grass ceiling’– instead of a glass ceiling.”
This is very clearly illustrated by the numbers: it has been estimated that only one percent of legal cannabis dispensaries and 4.3 percent of all cannabis businesses are owned or founded by black individuals.
CEO Sumit Mehta of cannabis investment banking platform, Mazakali, explains that the black community was unfairly punished by the war on cannabis, and are now unfairly underrepresented in its industrialization in a post-legalization environment.
“African-Americans represent fewer than one percent of cannabis business owners despite representing 17 percent of the U.S. population,” he notes.
So, the question here is: What’s going on? And what can we do about it?
The ‘Grass Ceiling’
Tiffany Bowden is the co-founder of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and co-owner of Comfy Tree Enterprises, one of the few cannabis businesses actually owned by a black woman.
“This topic requires we take a sort of critical race theory; a systemic approach, as you suggest,” she said as we introduced the subject. “There’s a history of racism in the United States, which has relegated people of color, especially black people, to the bottom of the society – pretty much across the board. As a result of that, we have been incarcerated [at a higher rate] than others … and have also been excluded from economic opportunity in general, when it comes to accessing higher paid jobs.”
This, of course, has a ripple effect that ends up limiting opportunities among black people when it comes to starting a business. Due to this economic discrimination, black people tend to have less savings and tend to be surrounded by less affluent people.
Furthermore, we could argue that entrepreneurship is also cultural. People who grow up being told they can achieve whatever they set their minds to, including starting a business of their own, are seemingly more likely to give entrepreneurship a shot. But, if nobody ever told you that you could start a business, chances are, you will never even think of it – I know I never had until I met people who owned their own businesses despite not being raised in affluent households.
So, it’s both an issue of having financial resources and knowing how to create or find new ones when your own aren’t finances aren’t enough. However, Bowden stresses the need to inform people about the fact that one can get into the cannabis industry without laying out a lot of money: “I feel like sometimes reporting feeds the notion of the cannabis industry being super cost-prohibitive. Starting a business is usually expensive, but getting into the industry is not.”
Vice-Chair, Larisa Bolivar, of the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA), has been involved in the cannabis industry since 2001. In fact, she’s not only participated in the industry for more than 15 years, but also researched it in depth. Her thesis for her master’s degree, titled “Enduring Racial Disparity After Cannabis Legalization,” suggests that the top elements contributing to the racial disparity in the cannabis industry were (and potentially remain) fear, lack of access to capital and previous criminal charges.
“I was really distressed by the lack of people of color, and have my own personal stories that fueled my distress, which led me to research how and why people of color were left out,” she said. In fact, Bolivar notes she agrees with Tiffany Bowden in that, while we are dealing with issues of race, there is also a socio-economic component within racial classes and in the movement as a whole.
“A lot of people do not like to reference slavery and its influence because they find it (from a timeline stand point) irrelevant. However, its impact has evolved and has never fully been eradicated,” Bowden says. “So, generally, when people discuss race issues as it relates to access – that’s the tip of the nose issue. It’s [slavery’s] connection to class that has made it stick. This is also what causes those who have not been in top rungs of society to take out each other in turf wars.”
Khadijah Adams, vice president and chief operations officer at business development company C.E. Hutton seems to be on the same page as Bolivar and Bowden as it relates to the socioeconomic component within racial classes. “To add to that, there has been a stigma attached to blacks and marijuana that has haunted us for at least 80 years and it has infected our community for far too long,” she explains.
To Read The Rest Of This Article By Javier Hasse on DOPE Magazine
Published: December 04, 2018
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News