For smokers, the patchwork but steadily dawning future of legalized weed in America sounds like an heavenly moment—too good to be true, even. For non-white Americans, it often is.
The institutional racism snaking through the legalization process in states like California, Illinois, Colorado and Ohio isn’t new; it’s been a point of contention since this country began seriously discussing legalized weed about a decade ago. Buzzfeed’s Amanda Chicago Lewis reports about the current state of the business, in which laws banning people with arrests or convictions for growing, moving and selling weed effectively shut out people of color from this incredibly profitable and increasingly “respectable” new industry.
While everyone of every race smokes weed—and why wouldn’t they?—and at very similar rates, black people are up to eight times more likely to have been arrested for possession and distribution in some cities, and much more likely to be convicted, too. Lewis reports:
Every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana bars people with drug felonies from working at, owning, investing in, or sitting on the board of a cannabis business.
How this disparity translates statistically? “Fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1%.”
And that’s not all. Thanks to the racist anti-civil rights propaganda against black and brown people as early as the 1920s when publications like the New York Times reported stories like “A marijuana-crazed Negro went berserk in a crowded express train” or “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife”—buoyed by prohibition leaders saying substances pushed minorities into animal territory—the stereotype of the lazy, criminal minority person (specifically man, in most cases) smoking weed has trotted through our history for a long time.
Today, you can find the same thread in Trump speeches. So when an investor is looking to bankroll a new weed dispensary, a bank is reviewing loan applicants or a city is mulling over who gets a permit to sell cannabis, minorities are almost always categorized as too risky.
Are you angry yet? Because we’re furious.
What makes this worse is the fact that, for those with the money and access—read: white or wealthy with no criminal record despite whether or not they’ve dealt in weed—this new industry is the Wild West of making bank. Those with means can hire an expensive lawyer to parse the fine legal minutiae of obtaining a legitimized permit and business license; pay the regulatory fees that vary from state to state; purchase buildings to house stores and smoking rooms; broker deals with suppliers; and absorb the 30-50 percent dip in profits many black market growers say happens if they go legit.
It’s a trick of a situation, in which legal weed businesses want to hire people with experience, but in which black and brown folks with experience often have records, too. But this country’s unspoken law has always been that you can do whatever you want as long as you seem legitimate and don’t get caught.
For example, BuzzFeed talks to a weed entrepreneur named Clark Metcalfe, who’s sold cocaine in the past but never been charged. He’s the mouthpiece for a weed consortium that’s constantly batting off investor offers, and he’s not afraid to talk to the media. Metcalfe, of course, is white.
BuzzFeed talked to another distributor, an unnamed black man with a similar history to Metcalfe, who was caught selling crack, convicted and served time in jail. The path for this man is much more precarious. This man, who Buzzfeed calls The Distributor, wants to go legit with the weed distribution business he’s been running for decades—but with his record, he doesn’t quite trust that California’s laws won’t make him a casualty.
“Most blacks don’t trust the system, because the system never helped them,” he said. “But by the time all of this irons itself out, you’re going to have like 94% of it owned by whites.”
Still, there are organizations trying to help ex-convicts navigate the system and turn their experience doing what was once a crime into a legitimate and lucrative skill. For example, a man named Hezekiah Allen with the California Growers Association is trying to help explain which states have conviction forgiveness and the time frames law enforcement uses to institute it.
At the California Growers Association meeting, one of the first questions was about what will happen to people with drug felonies.
“This was the trickiest subject,” Allen said. “We could not agree with law enforcement.” For now, he explained, California plans to decide whether drug felons like the Distributor can participate in the medical market on a case-by-case basis. Only those deemed “rehabilitated” will be able to get a license.
But how does one appear to be “rehabilitated” or convince a licensing board that the weed they were caught with was a “reasonable amount used for medical purposes?” Perception matters more than anything. It’s much easier to seem innocuous if you’re white.
States like Oregon have begun expunging people’s conviction records to allow those with drug offenses to participate in the weed rush. But elsewhere, like in Maryland and Illinois, those same people are pushed aside, making ways for monied Wall Street types, as Lewis describes it.
Both initiatives also offer the closest thing possible to reparations for the war on drugs: earmarking tax dollars from the industry for job training and other programs in the communities that have been most affected by past narcotics policies — language designed to avoid the legal complications of explicitly mentioning race.
Still, California’s initiative still omits many drug felons from the medical marijuana market, as opposed to the recreational one, though the two are in many respects the same.
We are out here hoping that—before these laws are fully codified—someone advocates for black and brown people to be able to make a living from this ballooning industry. Otherwise the hippie-dippie weed market will become just another space where white privilege and institutional racism have run amok.
Image via Shutterstock.