Lies We Tell Ourselves: Racism and the Cannabis Industry
Let’s establish one thing: the cannabis business is racist. There, I said it. Behind all the happy horseshit in press releases, promises to be more mindful and diverse, the cannabis industry is rife with institutional racism that’s going to take more than lip service to make right.
Marijuana’s Racist “Heritage”
The plant itself has a long history of hatred around it. The origin of the word “marihuana” has racial roots & was used to demonize people of color. During prohibition, this slur was aimed at Latinos who migrated to the U.S. after the Mexican revolution. Notably, Harry Anslinger, director of the Bureau of Narcotics, said it made black and brown people commit heinous crimes, including murder. Under these false assumptions, he initiated a fearsome campaign around cannabis, naming those who used it “inferior social deviants.”
He was assisted by known racist William Randolph Hearst, who ran his version of The National Enquirer as a pulpit to spread lies. At the time, the country was also profoundly racist and inclined to believe cooked up tales of sexual impropriety and hedonistic frenzy. The stigma this created is still fought today. Even before The Marijuana Tax Act, cannabis was conjoined with criminal activity. Many touring jazz musicians were African American and associated with its use. This led to continued harassment and massive incarceration, the legacy of which is self-evident.
The Failed War on Drugs
The failed war on drugs and prisons crowded with non-violent drug offenders are not things of the past. Even in states where the plant is recreationally legal, the number of raids, arrests, and ruined lives proves this fact. According to Way of Leaf, there is a cannabis bust every 48 seconds in America. The arrests are still heavily skewed towards people of color. According to NORML, “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested.”
Cannabis Racism: A Progressive Industry?
The cannabis industry has sought to make reparations of sorts to the communities most affected by these injustices, but so far, the results are mixed. According to a recent article in M.J. Biz, Black and brown employees are an uncommon sight at dispensaries, brands & distributors. Only 4% of cannabis businesses have executives or founders who are of color. “Race and Economics are inextricably linked,” according to Jeff Gray, CEO of S.C. Labs in Santa Cruz, California.
Social Equity Programs Falter
Still, social equity programs all over the country are stumbling. In my hometown of Los Angeles, only 6 of 200 licensed dispensaries are black-owned and operated. While the intent to allocate licenses specifically to individuals who suffered the effects of the war on drugs is a good one, the execution has fallen short. The stories are alternately disappointing and predatory. The wait time to get a permit is lengthy and requires a space leased, architectural drawings and inspections completed, and other expensive requirements that can sap funds and leave prospective owners worse off than before.
The ugly secret of current social equity programs is this – brown and Black people are being taken advantage of by wealthy white power brokers. Sadly these vipers cozy up to social equity license holders with promises of financial help, mentoring, and shared purpose. Some of the worst offenders are MSO’s (multi-state operators) who are unable to get a cannabis license quickly on their timeline.
Social equity partnerships offer a shortcut solution that often ends up not benefitting the original license holder. Many times they are marginalized and excluded from decision making. This does insidious harm and an obvious example of systemic racism in the cannabis industry. The goal of the programs is to provide a leg up to communities who have been under the thumb and knee of the patriarchy. It’s a no-win situation that doesn’t appear to be changing soon.
Real Life Experience in Cannabis: Beyond the Pander
I’ve worked at several cannabis companies over the years, all of which are vertically integrated. There are jobs in sales to administration to labs and cultivation facilities. In 6 years, I’ve never seen more than 1 or 2 people of color in these businesses. One person who I got to know came to me after they resigned. I asked why they were leaving.
The answer was simple and sad; it simultaneously broke my heart and made me angry. “I just never felt comfortable in the office or dispensaries.” I understood, and guess what?
I had absolutely nothing to say except that I was sorry.
The Lies We Sell: Where to go from here?
In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, each company is debuting their own carefully considered statement. Promises are being made about diversity, inclusion, and equality. Excuse me for being blunt but false piety is deplorable. Let’s spend less time on the press release and more time on action. Yes the cannabis industry is racist, and yes, the industry can change one entity at a time. We have to pull the covers on this continued cycle of pledges and lies. It’s an ugly contagion there will never be a vaccine for.
If you enjoyed reading about racism in the cannabis industry, check out Dita Von Trees’ take on gender diversity in the cannabis industry here. Also for Loud News Net’s ongoing coverage of the War on Drugs visit here.