At War with the War on Drugs: Diversity and Representation in the Cannabis Industry in the Burgeoning Era of Inclusivity

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Since it’s prohibition in 1937, cannabis has been used as a means to arrest, detain, and incarcerate millions of Americans. Roughly 30 million of them, to be more precise. Of these millions, a large majority of people negatively impacted by the war on drugs are minorities. Nationally, Black Americans are almost 4 times as likely to be arrested for minor possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In some states, this rises to almost 10 times (Figure 1), despite very similar usage rates nationwide (Figure 2). In 2017, 27% of the people arrested for drug law violations were Black, despite the fact that African-Americans comprise only 13.4% of the national population (for reference, Whites make up 73%).

At War With the War on Drugs | Higher Yields Cannabis Consulting

At War With the War on Drugs | Higher Yields Cannabis Consulting

Historically, minorities have also often been portrayed in propaganda and media as more likely to use marijuana, despite this having no factual basis. So, what role do minorities actually play in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry, after being made the face of the illegal cannabis industry in America?

 A War on Drugs, or a War on Minorities?

To provide some historical context for the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, here is a brief timeline of marijuana’s legal history in the US:

  • Early 1900’s- After the Mexican Revolution, Southern states saw a large influx of Mexican immigrants, who brought with them the medicinal herb they called “marijuana.” During this time, Americans were already, and had been for a long while, using marijuana in almost every tincture and medication available. However, they knew it by another name: cannabis. The two were not known to be the same thing at the time, and marijuana was demonized as a “Mexican drug.”
  • 1931- Hearings are held to decide the legality of marihuana in El Paso, Texas. Many white people testify that marijuana would cause men of color to “become violent and solicit sex from white women.” El Paso would go on to outlaw marijuana and use it as justification to arrest and deport Mexican immigrants.
  • 1937- Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially made illegal the use and sale of marijuana in all of the US.
  • 1971- Controlled Substances Act is passed by the Nixon administration, beginning what we know today as the war on drugs. Marijuana was listed as a schedule 1 substance; on the same legal par as heroin. This was despite the protestations of the Schafer Commission, which found that marijuana had no addictive properties and brought into question its categorization as an illicit substance.
  • 1996- California legalized the use of medicinal marijuana
  • 2013- Washington and Colorado become the first states to legalize marijuana fully.

In summary, from its inception, marijuana policy has been the long arm of the oppressor, targeting minority populations with propaganda, and with disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration. In doing so, BIPOC have been historically stripped of their public voice, and this is continuously used to deny them their legal voice in the poll booth, both during and after incarceration.

Barriers to Entry for Business Owners of Color

Decades after the Civil War, government agencies began drawing lines around districts that were deemed undesirable for public and private financial investment. The lines of the districts encircled majority BIPOC populated neighborhoods. Those maps were then used well into the eighties to deny inhabitants of the district’s loans for anything from housing to business, as well as education.

This process of loan denial based upon “poor financial risk” is known as redlining, and while it is not legal today, the repercussions are still felt in many large cities. Redlining has severely handicapped BIPOC’s ability to build the foundation of generational wealth, given that college education and owning a home are historically the easiest ways for an American family to build wealth. Due to this, areas that were redlined are extremely prone to cycles of generational poverty. An investigation into the Atlanta housing market showed that even today, banks are more willing to grant a loan to a low income White family, than to a medium to high income African-American family. Lack of investment in neighborhood resources and inability to secure housing loans leads to low property value, which in turn lends itself to low funding for public schools, as public schools are more often than not funded by property taxes.

Even when residents of these areas are able to obtain a college degree, implicit bias ensures that the adversity doesn’t stop there. Job applicants are twice as likely to get a call back when they have a white sounding name, even if their qualifications are exactly the same or less than those of their non-white sounding competitors. In keeping with this, the unemployment rate of African American college graduates is twice as high than the unemployment rate of their white counterparts.

The ramifications of racist policies and practices, drug related and otherwise, are still apparent in society today, even decades after the abolition of segregation and Jim Crow. Systemic racism is very real, and it permeates more than one facet of American culture. Lack of access to funding, unequal employment opportunities, lack of representation, and implicit bias are just a few of the barriers of entry for BIPOC to many industries today, including cannabis.

Representation in the Legal Cannabis Industry

Having been made the face of cannabis for so long, one might assume that minorities make up a healthy percentage of people employed in the growing legal industry. Unfortunately, this assumption could not be farther from the truth. According to Leafly’s 2020 Jobs Report, the cannabis industry provided 243,700 full-time equivalent jobs. Of these, less than 1/5 (17%) of the people involved at a stakeholder or owner level are people of color, and of those, only 4.3% are Black.

This lack of representation in industry ownership, coupled with limited access to capital investment, scares many potential business owners of color away from applying for licenses. Applying in and of itself accrues thousands of dollars in fees. Oftentimes, licensing boards will require proof of considerable financial backing just to be considered for a license. Some state licensing boards also have “good moral character” clauses, which allow licensing authorities to reject applicants for past criminal convictions. Although a few states, such as Illinois,  require license applicants to produce a diversity plan, there is no enforcement of said plan. The fear of governmental discrimination they might encounter during necessary federal involvement, especially given the disparate incarceration rate of people of color for minor drug offenses, also presents a major barrier to entry.

As Sieh Semura, cannabis rights activist, told NPR “just because people say it’s legal… it’s not welcoming for everybody.”

Benefits to Employing Responsibly

Employing responsibly from within the community puts today’s canna-businesses in a unique position to combat this lack of representation. Not only will staffing a diverse team with nearby community members benefit the relationship between a business and it’s consumers, but it also allows them to directly put money back into disproportionately impacted communities. Supporting the community often means that they will support your business in kind, and can slow some of the very real and very negative effects of gentrification. In addition to the social benefits, diverse teams have been shown to make better decisions, faster, according to Harvard Business Review. Research has also shown that teams with a multitude of backgrounds are top financial performers, and are more innovative than homogenous teams. The push for inclusion in today’s society is being felt on many fronts, and the cannabis industry is being given the opportunity to sink, or swim with the rising wave.

At HYC, we are passionate about social equity and working to combat the lasting effect of discrimination in the cannabis industry. We also work with Dionne Carroll, who is active in Women of Color in Cannabis (WOCC). WOCC strives to address the barriers to entry into the cannabis industry facing women of color today.

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