This story is part of our Ethical Cannabis series, which explores moral quandaries in the cannabis space and empowers readers to become conscious consumers. Got an issue to unpack? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Within the past two decades, cannabis has gone from being a taboo substance only available on the black market to a highly profitable product available in sleek, above-ground dispensaries.
For many, the booming cannabis industry has been a blessing.
In 2019 alone, the industry created over 33,000 new jobs, according to Leafly’s annual Cannabis Jobs Report. And those jobs come with a median salary that’s 10.7 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2019 Glassdoor report.
But people of color — particularly Black people — who’ve been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for possessing, consuming, or selling cannabis are being shut out of the industry.
This has led to increasingly loud calls for more social equity within the cannabis landscape.
But what does that actually mean? The definition of social equity can vary, depending on the context, but generally boils down to justice and fairness in public policy.
When it comes to the cannabis industry, social equity centers around the inclusion of communities of color in every aspect, from cultivation to consulting.
While some cities are creating (far from perfect) social equity laws in hopes of creating a more just business landscape, a growing number of people are taking matters into their own hands.
Here’s a look at some brands, dispensaries, and organizations who are leading the way toward a more equitable industry.
It’s impossible to talk about cannabis and social equity without acknowledging the “War on Drugs” and its ongoing effects.
The formation of the Federal Narcotics Bureau
The United States has a long history of attempting to ban (or heavily control) the use of psychoactive substances — the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s being one of the most well-known examples of this.
While prohibition was repealed in 1933, cannabis found itself in the hot seat just 4 years later thanks to Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (which was founded in 1930).
Anslinger used his position to aggressively target cannabis for two reasons. First, it would generate more interest and funding for his new department by giving him a pervasive enemy to fight.
But it would also give him license to act on his racist views and lock up Black people, whom he claimed made up the majority of cannabis users, alongside “Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.” That last bit was directed at jazz musicians, who he detested for creating “satanic voodoo” music.
The Nixon era
President Richard Nixon (also known for his racist views) took things to a new level on June 17, 1971, when he declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one,” officially kicking off the so-called “war on drugs”
Many — including Nixon’s own domestic policy adviser — argue that this move was motivated by a desire to target anti-war activists and wage a systematic war against Black Americans fighting for civil rights.
The war on drugs, later bolstered by legislation like the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, has subjected people of color to decades of arrests and convictions with long prison terms.
The incarceration numbers are so staggering that law professor and author of “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander said in 2011: “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
And the war rages on, despite increased legalization and shifting attitudes toward cannabis.
According to a 2020 report by the ACLU, Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, even as arrest rates as a whole have seen a slight drop.
For Black people and other people of color who’ve been — and still are — victimized by politicians and law enforcement, this is a prime time to right some serious wrongs.
According to a 2019 report by Marijuana Business Daily, only 1 in 5 cannabis businesses are owned by minorities.
The same website responsible for that statistic also ran a 2017 survey about minority ownership. Of the 567 self-identified owners, executives, and founders in the industry, only 17 percent identified as minorities.
The good news? Black-owned cannabis brands are growing in number and stature, and some are even making social equity part of their business plan.
Viola, founded in Los Angeles by former NBA player Al Harrington, is using cannabis to reinvest in marginalized communities.
In 2020, the company announced the creation of Viola Cares, the company’s social equity initiative. One of the initiative’s first actions is a partnership with Root & Rebound, an organization dedicated to helping people reenter society following incarceration.
Together, the two organizations are working on a toolkit to help those incarcerated on cannabis-related charges expunge their records and find their place in the industry.
Denver-based Simply Pure is owned and run by military veterans Wanda James and Scott Durrah.
The two opened one of Colorado’s first dispensaries and the first Black-owned one in the state. With Durrah being a highly regarded chef and restaurateur, they started Simply Pure as a way to provide safe, healthy edibles to consumers throughout the state.
Today, Simply Pure runs a popular dispensary in the LoHi area of Denver and sells their own line of CBD products online.
Blunts + Moore
Blunts + Moore is the first dispensary to come out of Oakland, California’s social equity program, which requires that half of all dispensary permits go to those who’ve been harmed most by the war on drugs.
The dispensary sits in the same zip code where Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt Jr., one of the founders, was arrested for selling cannabis in 2004.
DC Holistic Wellness
DC Holistic Wellness, otherwise known as Cannabliss, is the capital’s first Black-owned dispensary.
It was opened in August 2019 by Norbert Pickett, a former professional basketball player who turned to cannabis to manage chronic pain resulting from a car accident.
The shop is housed in a former liquor store in Ward 7, a historically low-income neighborhood with a predominately Black population. Picket hopes to use the shop as a means of helping the community heal from the trauma of the war on drugs.
In addition to hiring mostly locals, Pickett has plans for a “safe use” lounge reserved for residents of Section 8 housing, who can face eviction for using cannabis in their home. He’s also in the process of getting approval to open a much-needed urgent care clinic next door.
Black ownership is a key component of creating an equitable cannabis industry, but the work doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop there.
These groups are stepping up to ensure the future of cannabis is fair and just:
Cannaclusive was pointedly created to address the issue of how marginalized consumers of cannabis are portrayed in advertising and packaging by brands in the industry.
In addition to offering diversity and inclusion consultations for brands, the group maintains a database of cannabis businesses owned by members of marginalized communities as well as a repository of inclusive stock photos.
More recently, they’ve created The Accountability List, which aims to help cannabis and hemp companies follow through on commitments around racial justice and diversity in the industry.
Think BIG was founded by a trio of Black entrepreneurs that includes CJ Wallace, son of the late hip-hop icon Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.
The group is dedicated to a 3-point platform of:
- domestic and international legalization of cannabis
- police and criminal justice reform
- reinvestment in communities most harmed by the prohibition of cannabis
The Last Prisoner Project
As cannabis legalization grows across the country, 40,000 people are still incarcerated on cannabis-related charges, according to The Last Prisoner Project.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping each of those prisoners gain freedom, reenter society, and find employment in the legal cannabis industry. With a diverse advisory board and legal team, they also fight for total legislative reform and offer educational workshops.
If you want to get involved in their work, you can find a range of opportunities, from writing letters to signing petitions, on their website.
As the cannabis industry grows in size, it’s vital that the general public is constantly reminded of how previous laws and policies, under the guise of “drug reform,” served to harm marginalized communities in the United States.
Social equity must be a firm hallmark of the industry as a matter of moral and societal principle.
With these groups and brands, there just might be solid footing for that to take place, which would truly underscore the wellness that cannabis is meant to foster.
Christopher A. Smith is a freelance writer who previously worked in film and TV before turning to the profession he’s always wanted to work in. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post and other publications. He hails from the borough of Queens, New York and enjoys being immersed in the numerous cultural offerings the city has. He’s also an avid traveler and enjoys the quiet comforts of reading.