Marijuana legalization in states like California, Colorado, and Washington represented more than a shift in American drug culture: For the black and brown communities that have been targeted and stigmatized, and particularly for the millions of people of color who have gone to jail on marijuana charges, it heralded the beginning of the end of America’s disastrous, racist War on Drugs. But an emerging cannabis market is abandoning the values of racial justice that in large part motivated those initial calls for legalization. White entrepreneurs are crowding out black and brown ones, with legislation in many parts of the country failing to provide for an inclusive, representative legal cannabis industry.
With more than 80 percent of legal cannabis companies under white ownership, black and brown Americans are struggling to break in. And while the exclusion and underrepresentation of people of color are certainly characteristic of the American economy more broadly, marijuana’s historical significance makes this inequality particularly troublesome.
How Weed Became White
For Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, fighting for representation in the cannabis industry is about both recognizing the injustices of the past and investing in a better future. Policies aimed at encouraging black participation in cannabis companies “should be seen as a form of restitution, and a recognition that poor communities of color bore the terrible brunt of this war that cut people’s lives short, limited their opportunities, limited their educational and career advancement, all of that,” he explained in an interview with the HPR. And even small gains in representation, he believes, can trigger a sort of “multiplier effect, where when a business is run by people of color, they tend to hire other people of color, and they tend to bank or do business with other people of color.”
The opposite, however, is also true — and that is what is happening now. White entrepreneurs in this industry typically work with white venture capitalists and cater to white audiences, creating few entry points for people of color. Federal restrictions compound this dynamic: “Because of the federal illegality, there are no bank loans in this area, there’s no small business administration coming in, there’s no commercial banking, and so its left to venture capitalists and private asset managers, very few of whom are people of color,” Hawkins said. Federal restrictions and local regulations also make cannabis a relatively complicated industry to navigate, raising barriers to entry for anyone without significant training or legal expertise.
This problem both reflects and perpetuates a fundamental dissonance in how black and white drug use are perceived in American society. “When people of color use cannabis, we’re seen as using it as an intoxicant, whereas when white people use it it’s perceived as a wellness tool, which is such a hypocrisy,” explained Amber Senter, an advocate for a more racially inclusive cannabis industry, in an interview with the HPR. This hypocrisy is what allows white cannabis users like the “marijuana moms” to go viral for the very behavior that is stigmatized and even criminalized for their black counterparts.
Published: May 19, 2019
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News