Legal pot: Why minorities say they’re being left out of the money

Why We Wrote This

The story of marijuana and racial equity has mostly been about crime and punishment. Is that changing in an age of legality and commerce?

Jennifer Lett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
Daphne Bissainte adds CBD oil – a non-psychoactive cannabinoid – to an espresso at a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, coffee shop. Some view the substance as having mild medicinal properties.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Legal cannabis is expected to be a $30 billion North American market by 2022. Minority entrepreneurs make up about 5 percent of ownership – a vivid example of how tightly race remains entangled in laws surrounding marijuana.

Fed up, black lawmakers from New York to Georgia are threatening to scuttle legalization bills unless there are guaranteed concessions for neighborhoods scarred by drug wars. To some, such revolts are a sign of turmoil inside the legalization movement. But for others, it is a fundamentally moral fight: a reckoning for an eight-decade government drug war.

In Georgia, cannabis advocates have pushed back against demands from black legislators.

“My opinion is, let’s get something on the books and then work with it,’ ” says Tom McCain, director of Peach State NORML. “I don’t think [social justice] is a reason to kill a bill.”

Some black lawmakers and their supporters disagree.

“There is a great sense of distrust based on the historical precedent, the classical bait and switch where minority communities are used as political fodder to get an agenda passed, and then afterward there’s a great sense of amnesia about the promises and commitments made,” says the Rev. Reginald Bachus. “We can’t be the first to jail and the last ones to the bank.”

The day is coming. Chris Butler can feel it.

The Atlanta businessman – a churchgoing, middle-aged black man – says he will be ready if cannabis legalization comes to this corner of the South. He claims he already has a devoted clientele, a stash of seeds, and a “sweet plan” for a grow room with a “hydroponic brain.”

Yes, this is stop-sign-red Georgia, which along with Texas and New Jersey leads the nation in marijuana arrests – some 27,000 last year.

But Atlanta and Savannah have decriminalized possession of an ounce or less, which has led to a 70 percent drop in arrest rates. A convenience store in Atlanta’s upscale Candler Park advertises “CBD oil here,” referring to a medicinal marijuana product approved by the Republican-led legislature.

And Coca-Cola Co., the iconic Atlanta soda-maker, is quietly developing a cannabis product.

Yet Mr. Butler also understands a fundamental fact: Given his race, past arrests for nonviolent offenses, and lack of wealth he may never be able to join an emerging pot shop trade.

“You’ve got a country where a guy who is selling weed in one state goes to prison and the guy rolling joints in the next state over gets rich!” says Mr. Butler, who asked that his real name not be used so that he could talk freely. “It’s not fair, it never was fair, and it might never be fair.”

‘Vertical integration of exclusion’

According to the Rev. Reginald Bachus of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Mr. Butler and his cohorts are being shoved aside by what Mr. Bachus calls “vertical integration of exclusion” as Big Cannabis speeds toward a $30 billion North American market by 2022.

Minority pot dealers “are the ones who helped design the business model, so how can they not participate when it’s legalized and when others who once frowned upon [cannabis] now see an opportunity?” he asks.

The relative absence of African-American entrepreneurs, who make up only about 5 percent of the legal industry’s total ownership stake, is a vivid example of how tightly race remains entangled in laws surrounding marijuana.

Fed up, African-American lawmakers from New York to Georgia are threatening to scuttle legalization bills unless there are guaranteed concessions, if not reparations, for neighborhoods scarred by drug wars. Ohio, California, and Washington states are also addressing a host of post-prohibition questions, including whether to expunge marijuana convictions, the bulk of which are faced by black Americans like Mr. Butler.

The U.S. has now “begun to recognize the third generation of legalization,” says Steven Bender, a law professor at Seattle University and author of “The Colors of Cannabis,” a law review article. “The first generation was medical, the second was recreational, and the third is race consciousness.”

To some, such revolts in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere are a sign of turmoil inside the legalization movement. But for many, it is a fundamentally moral fight: a much-needed reckoning for an eight-decade government drug war in which critics say the U.S. has yet to fully address “how to repair the harm caused,” as Union Theological Seminary visiting professor Michelle Alexander has put it.

At the very least, it may infuse marijuana policy with, as Mr. Butler hopes, “some actual honesty about what is going on.”

“Social equity is becoming a bigger issue in this industry as more states consider legalization,” says Chris Walsh, founding editor of Marijuana Business Daily, a Denver-based trade magazine.

To be sure, marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law – with producers, in theory, facing a federal death penalty if caught growing 60,000 plants or more. (No one has been executed for marijuana offenses, though people have been sentenced to life in prison.)

Yet the federal government in recent years has taken a mostly hands-off approach to state experimentation. Ten states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, and more than half the country allows limited medical use – including Arkansas, Georgia, and Florida.

But promises from cannabis advocates that the end of prohibition would not just protect, but lift, minority communities so far have amounted to a “pump-fake,” says Mr. Bachus.

Black Americans remain 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white Americans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, even though usage rates are the same on average. Marijuana has been legal for adults in Colorado since 2014. Today, more than three-quarters of those arrested for underage or public use, or driving while high, are black residents, who make up just 5 percent of all Coloradans.

Historians tie these racial disparities back to the 1930s when Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger used racist tropes to target marijuana users as crazed minorities bent on hypnotizing white women into vice – a condition popularized as “reefer madness.”

“The war against cannabis has always been a racist war,” says Barney Warf, a social geographer at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Yet as some black leaders, including presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., call for reparations for the war on drugs, another narrative should be considered, argues University of Dayton historian Adam Rathge.

For one, rural white Americans have been targeted for drug prosecutions at similarly disproportionate rates as urban African-Americans.

And while it is true that much of prohibition was laced with anti-Latino and anti-black political fervor, some early opposition to cannabis came from northern states with small minority populations. In those cases, the concern may have been safety rather than morality.

In that way, at least part of criminalization “may have been more progressive regulatory zeal than racism or xenophobia,” says Mr. Rathge. “One way to frame this is that these laws – from criminalization to decriminalization – are passed to protect white children, but what they end up doing is harming minority communities, even though that wasn’t the full impetus for passing them in the first place.”

The message of a $250,000 dispensary permit

Whatever the cause, the effect on minority communities has been inarguable.

The idea of legalization more broadly “really has been, let’s take it from dealers of color who are operating in this violent underground and bring it aboveground through reputable businesses,” says Professor Bender. “So really what voters were deciding was between the shady drug dealer of color and their local friendly storefront, with monies now going to the government. That’s a slam dunk.”

That has added suspicion among black lawmakers about where the legal market is going – and who will ultimately benefit.

Already, mom-and-pop growers and dispensaries are being pushed aside, and with them hopes for a more diverse marijuana shopkeeper class. Last week, the MedMen corporate dispensary was disavowed by The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association after a lawsuit emerged alleging that the founders engaged in racist speech.

Moreover, criminal justice policies have left African-Americans’ records disproportionately marred, squeezing their entry into a heavily regulated market. And then there’s the wealth gap: The proposed cost of entry in New York legislation would include a $250,000 dispensary permit.

“For a lot of those communities, [benefiting from legalization] is almost a mountain that cannot be surpassed unless there is some help on that point,” says California attorney Thomas Moran, author of “Just A Little Bit of History Repeating Itself,” an article that ran in the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Holding up legalization

Last week, New York lawmakers said they would hold up legalization if they can’t get guarantees that substantial pieces of new tax revenues would go to disadvantaged communities hurt by prohibition enforcement. New Jersey lawmakers, too, are demanding guarantees that legalization will look exceedingly diverse.

In Georgia, where negotiations over legalization as well as a new hemp bill are already complex, cannabis advocates have pushed back against demands from black legislators.

“We’ve had folks trying to block these bills because there is no social equity written into ... them, but my opinion is, let’s get something on the books and then work with it,’” says Tom McCain, director of Peach State NORML, which lobbies for legalization. “I don’t think [social justice] is a reason to kill a [legalization] bill.”

Some black lawmakers and their supporters disagree.

“There is a great sense of distrust based on the historical precedent, the classical bait and switch where minority communities are used as political fodder to get an agenda passed, and then afterward there’s a great sense of amnesia about the promises and commitments made,” says Mr. Bachus. “We can’t be the first to jail and the last ones to the bank.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.