It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is by and large white.
African Americans own less than one percent of all dispensaries in the country, according to stats from early 2016. And only the states of California and Massachusetts allow people with marijuana-related felonies to nonetheless work within the adult use (though not the medical) marijuana industry.
“Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big — big money, big businesses selling weed — after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed,” said Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. “Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”
Though cannabis is legal in more than half the nation, the shadows cast by federal prohibition continue to obscure entry into the industry for people of color. The Drug War disproportionately targets African Americans, who are 3.73 times more likely than whites to get busted for weed possession, despite similar rates of use. It makes sense that a community marginalized by marijuana laws would be more reticent to get involved in a still federally illegal industry. “Almost 80 years of propaganda on the cannabis plant and on black and brown bodies has scared many people of color from even entering the industry in the first place,” Jacob Plowden, co-founder of the Cannabis Cultural Association, tells Jane Street. “Even talking to our families about cannabis, who know about the work we do, is still difficult because of the continuous societal stigma around the plant, and other negative impacts of the Drug War.”
The barrier to entry is exacerbated by the cost of entry into the industry, to begin with. In some states, obtaining a license can cost millions, Plowden points out. “This puts licenses out of reach for most Americans, especially poor communities of color.” Barring people convicted of marijuana law violations doesn’t help, either. Most cannabis legislation lacks programs to help integrate former marijuana inmates into the industry.
However, while diversity might be a hot topic in the cannabis industry, Plowden suggests leaders go beyond using it as just a talking point. “The industry needs to actually provide platforms and resources that will allow the communities most affected by the ongoing Drug War to participate,” he says. “We need the industry to stop talking about us and to us, and allow us to tell the industry what we need.” Providing access to career fairs, mentorship programs, conference scholarships, affordable networking events, workshops, or even capital to start cannabis businesses would be a good start, he adds.
As the country’s fastest growing market, worth more than $6 billion, the cannabis industry brings a great deal of clout and capital — both of which could go toward facilitating access to a more diverse demographic of entrepreneurs. Industry leaders could also better lobby legislators to institute Drug War reparations that would seal criminal records and allow people to be released from prison, says Plowden.
Few policies actually do that. An exception is California’s legalization measure Prop 64, which allows people convicted of marijuana law violations to have their records reduced or expunged altogether. Over five years, $50 million in revenue from Prop 64 is slated to go toward reinvigorating communities most devastated by the Drug War.
In addition to supporting diversity through sweeping legislation, local industry folk can also take action on an individual level. “Companies should strive to hire individuals who not only bring needed talents to their respective organizations, but also a new perspective,” says Harrison Phillips, an analyst at Viridian Capital Advisors, which provides financial consulting to the cannabis industry. Just last week, Viridian staged a conference on the very topic of promoting diversity in the industry. “Differences in cultural upbringing tend to develop into differing ways in which individuals experience and interact with the world,” he adds, and that’s good for business.
The American pace of change tends to follow a pattern, according to Phillips, suggesting diversity in cannabis could go the same way. First a small number of states go against the status quo, pioneering a new way of thinking; next the grassroots campaign from these pioneer states spreads, leading to court decisions supporting a change in precedent; last, adoption and public support of the change accelerates, eventually leading to further state and eventual federal support, Phillips says.
“This pattern occurred with interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, abortion, and same-sex marriage,” he says. “And It seems to be steadily developing with the unwinding of cannabis prohibition.” If states follow California’s model for instance, with regard to Drug War reparations, the cannabis industry could slowly work to erase the racial biases crimping its ultimate potential.