The legal and medical cannabis industry has long been complicit in the systemic oppression of Black people. As Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country, activists, doctors, and entrepreneurs are calling for those in cannabis to dismantle the systemic racism the industry is built on.
In the wake of the protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, all facets of American culture are forced to rethink its approach to race. The cannabis industry, which has a of $77 billion by 2020, is steadily growing. But the effects of the generations-long war on drugs are still prevalent in marginalized communities, particularly Black ones.
A by American Civil Liberties Union this year concluded that even though white people and Black people consume cannabis at “roughly equal” rates, Black people are 3.64 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Since 2010, the report found, the increasing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana “has not reduced national trends in racial disparities.” The ACLU reports that there were actually more arrests for marijuana in 2018 than in 2015, despite the fact that eight states had either legalized or decriminalized it in the time since. In some states, Black people were six to 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Cannabis is currently recreationally legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C. and three states are on whether or not to legalize marijuana, medically and recreationally, this November. Six more are fighting to get the issue on the ballot. The industry is set to continue booming as legalization efforts make progress.
But how can those in the cannabis business ensure a more equitable way forward?
Breaking into the cannabis industry is for the privileged
In 2017, Black entrepreneurs made up roughly 4.3 percent of cannabis business owners, Marijuana Business Daily reported. White people, for comparison, accounted for 81 percent of cannabis business owners.
Systemic racism isn’t just intertwined with the criminalization of cannabis, but in the legal industry, too. Breaking into this business as an entrepreneur is an uphill battle unless you’re privileged with financial security and connections.
If you have a felony conviction for marijuana possession, you’ll have a rough time obtaining a cannabis business license in many states. , for example, forbids anyone with a felony controlled substance offense within the past three years from obtaining one. To obtain a license in , applicants can’t have any controlled substance felonies within the past decade. requires anyone working in the industry, in both medical and retail, to undergo a criminal background check. Those convicted of “excluded felony offense” in Nevada are not allowed to work in cannabis.
Dasheeda Dawson, a cannabis activist and author of the workbook How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry was recently selected to serve on the Head of Cannabis for the City of Portland to shape policies around the plant. She’s the third Black woman in the country to hold a position of power in cannabis regulatory practices.
“Most markets were started by purposely keeping out people who have prior convictions with marijuana,” Dawson told Mashable in a phone call. “And as you know, Black people are almost four times as likely on average to be arrested for cannabis possession.”
And aside from explicitly keeping those with substance-related felonies out, those trying to break into cannabis also face extreme financial “barriers of entry.” Dawson noted that obtaining a license is a laborious process, both legally and financially. Since most banks won’t finance cannabis businesses because it’s still federally illegal, many of the upfront costs have to be self-financed or backed by venture capital. If you’re rich and well-connected, you already have a leg up.
“These are things that oftentimes are insurmountable for new, young, Black entrepreneurs who have the degrees, who have the corporate experience, but maybe not the financing,” Dawson continued.
Dorian Morris, the founder of a CBD company called , said Black founders are more likely to struggle to find partners to invest in their business. Despite years of experience in corporate retail at major beauty brands, Morris said she had to network for connections to “get her foot in the door.” She also faced challenges marketing Undefined Beauty, because major social media companies like Instagram and Facebook promoted content from CBD brands.
“Black women get basically zero funding,” Morris said, who is Black herself.
Project Diane, a study by social enterprise DigitalUndivided, found that in 2017, women received only 2.2 percent of VC funding for the year. Between 2009 and 2017, firms founded by Black women only raised 0.0006 percent of all VC funding.
“It’s kind of this self propelling model where a lot of minorities aren’t tapped into that community.”
“And that comes down to access to network, because a lot of the VCs are funding people who have access to them,” Morris continued. “They’ve gone to their school, they’ve worked for their tech companies. It’s kind of this self propelling model where a lot of minorities aren’t tapped into that community.”
That doesn’t account for the implicit bias that those in positions of power already have against minority communities.
Morris recalled once sitting on a panel of “mostly old white men” at a business conference, and challenging them to step up.
“I definitely did challenge the conversation and my perspective was [that] everyone in this room has the power to invest in Black-owned businesses and not keep putting their money behind white bros,” Morris remembered. “So it’s like, let’s put fire under people’s feet. Because if not, they’re gonna continue to do what they do and not feel like they have to be part of the solution.”