The legal cannabis industry must reckon with systemic racism

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.”

“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 , struggled to find partners to invest in her business. Despite years of experience in corporate retail at major beauty brands, she said she had to network for connections to “get her foot in the door” in order to obtain a license in California. 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.”

How the industry can step up 

What do solutions look like? Beyond pledging donations to nonprofit organizations that benefit BIPOC causes, Morris and Dawson believe the industry as a whole has to rethink its approach. 

While a number of legal states have implemented social equity programs intended to give minority entrepreneurs a leg up, they’ve been criticized for being ineffective. In Los Angeles, a wealthy businessman used the social equity program to partner with Black entrepreneurs and built apparent “predatory” language into the partnership contracts. In Massachusetts, only two Black applicants from the state’s social equity program managed to obtain licenses. The state issued a total of 105 provisional and 79 final licenses. 

Social equity programs may be well-meaning, but Morris and Dawson have ideas for more tangible change.

In addition to running a CBD beauty brand, Morris also operates a physical storefront in Oakland, California that sells a selection of cannabis products from minority-owned companies. Tired of seeing luxury brands co-opt cannabis as an expensive commodity, rather than something accessible, Morris sought to create a line of CBD products under $50.

“It’s a beautiful ingredient, but it shouldn’t cost your firstborn child,” Morris said. She hopes that by capping the price, more people of color will be able to afford CBD. 

Aside from making cannabis products more affordable, while still maintaining quality, Morris wants to see cannabis brands try to achieve other goals to ensure diversity. For one, dispensaries and other cannabis companies should strive for diversity all the way through the supply chain, from sourcing cannabis flower from Black-owned farms, to buying from Black-owned distributors, to supporting Black-owned cannabis processors. 

“So thinking about your hiring practices, are you giving opportunities and jobs to those that have been impacted by the war on drugs?” 

“And then it’s about who you’re choosing to bring into your talent,” Morris added. “So thinking about your hiring practices, are you giving opportunities and jobs to those that have been impacted by the war on drugs?” 

Dawson would like to see restrictions lifted on obtaining cannabis business licenses for those with criminal records. The onus is on cannabis companies, she said, to step up and begin lobbying lawmakers to legalize and reimagine regulation around the product they profit off of. Finally, Dawson is pushing for more people of color, especially Black people, to be involved in regulating it. 

“We need more people of color to be in the position to make the laws and regulate them,” Dawson said. “The last four years, I’ve spent a lot of time educating lawmakers, and oftentimes actually Black lawmakers who are the most reluctant because we’ve had the most pain distributed in the community as a result of being involved with cannabis.” 

But if the American cannabis industry was to really begin atoning for the war on drugs, it needs to reform the medical front as well.

Cannabis is medicinal

A staggering majority of cannabis brands are founded by white people, while Black people continue to be criminalized for possessing it. Cannabis is proven to treat a plethora of conditions and benefit the human body. The federal legalization of hemp, or cannabis that does not contain more than 0.3 percent THC, opened up a largely unregulated market of CBD products marketed as a luxury wellness item.

Dr. Rachel Knox, an endocannabinologist who specializes in the way cannabinoids like THC and CBD affect the body, notes that cannabis is medicinal and can be used for wellness. But she’s skeptical of privileged brand founders shilling it as a luxury commodity. 

“Wellness is a white construct. People of color do not have the luxury to pursue wellness.”

“Wellness, the whole concept of wellness, is a white construct,” Knox told Mashable. “People of color, by and large, do not have the luxury to pursue wellness.”

The whole Knox family is spearheading endocannabinoid treatment in the United States; Rachel Knox’s mother, Dr. Janice Knox, founded the American Cannabinoid Clinics in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Dr. David Knox, and sister, Dr. Jessica Knox, also practice treating the endocannabinoid system with natural exogenous cannabinoids like CBD and THC. But while the effort to legalize marijuana, both recreational and medical, makes headway in states across the country, many Black patients are wary of its prescription. 

The Knox sisters believe that to combat the racist and classist stigma against cannabis, all doctors should be required to take a class on the endocannabinoid system. While the system was discovered in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s largely unknown in the medical community. What clinicians have about the endocannabinoid system is that it’s involved in a variety of bodily functions, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, sleep, and metabolism. Although cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years, the Knox sisters are frustrated with the medical community’s dismissal of it. 

“People of color don’t want to go to jail,” Dr. Jessica Knox added. “So if their brother, their sister, their mom, or dad, or cousin, or friend was arrested for simple possession or public consumption, they’re not gonna want to use it. Even in a legal market, even as medicine.” 

She added that medical professionals themselves are skeptical about the medicinal properties of cannabis, which is a bias steeped in generations of racism. 

Even the word “marijuana” is racially charged. Mexican laborers in the Southwest rolled the plant into cigarettes and used it to unwind during the era of Prohibition. Although Mexico banned weed in 1920, elitist Americans associated it with Mexican immigrants flocking to the south. Anti-cannabis propaganda pushed by newspapers and movies like Reefer Madness convinced millions that the plant would force users into raving lunacy. Decades of alarmist content about cannabis and those who used it followed. President Richard Nixon’s infamous “War on Drugs” perpetuated the demonization of both recreational and medical marijuana. While the crusade against American drug use was largely seen as a failure, many doctors are still skeptical of cannabis use. 

That sort of thinking only hurts patients, as it makes them either unwilling to disclose their cannabis use or hesitant to use it medicinally. 

“If your patients are using it, it is your duty to understand the pharmacology of that substance impartially,” Dr. Rachel Knox said. “It is your duty to understand the physiology of the endocannabinoid system so that when your patient comes into your emergency department, your family practice… you understand how to assess that patient.” 

In addition to calling on doctors to educate themselves, Drs. Jessica and Rachel Knox want clinicians to be able to study federally cleared cannabis from sources other than the University of Mississippi. The University of Mississippi holds the only license to grow cannabis for federally funded research. The product it grows, though, is considered low-quality. An investigation by the University of Northern Colorado concluded that the cannabis samples from the University of Mississippi actually shared a “closer genetic affinity with hemp samples in most analyses’ than with commercially available marijuana,” according to . As of last week, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow clinicians to study commercial cannabis. The bill still needs to pass through the Senate. 

By being allowed to investigate commercially available cannabis, researchers will be able to further prove its medicinal value. While cannabis has been to treat a variety of conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, epilepsy, anxiety, sleep disorders, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the Knox sisters believe that being able to present doctors with evidence-backed facts will encourage them to unlearn their bias against it. But as long as it’s considered a Schedule 1 substance, many in the medical community will be skeptical of its clinically proven uses over traditional pharmacological medication. 

Atoning for the war on drugs

A number of cannabis brands have recently stepped up to right the wrongs of the war on drugs. Kush Queen, which sells CBD and THC bath bombs, pledged $5 from every $12.99 bath bomb in its Pride collection to BYP100, an organization of young Black activists that focuses on community mobilizing. Emjay, a weed delivery service based in Los Angeles, promised to round up every purchase to the nearest dollar and every month, donate the sum to four organizations dedicated to fighting racial inequity. Eaze, another California-based delivery service funds an for underrepresented cannabis business founders, and advocates for greater diversity in the cannabis industry.  

But the fight against racial inequity in cannabis means completely dismantling and rebuilding it from the ground up. It may take years, but the nascent industry can still be reformed for the better. 

“We almost have to flip our current way of life completely on its head so that we’re serving everybody equitably.”

“Right now, we have an infrastructure that is systemically biased,” Dr. Rachel Knox said. “So, we almost have to flip our current way of life completely on its head so that we’re serving everybody equitably.” 

That change — whether on the legal front, business front, or medical front — must happen to facilitate a more inclusive future of weed. 

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