American attitudes toward marijuana remain inextricably linked to perceptions of Latinx and Black communities. The word “marijuana” originated with Mexican immigrants, who brought smokeable cannabis across the border while fleeing violence of the U.S.-exacerbated Mexican Revolution. White landowners in the Caribbean cultivated the plant on their plantations to “pacify” enslaved Black peoples, thus guaranteeing its introduction into U.S. port cities and their African diasporas. 

The subversive appeal of cannabis in America grew through its association with Black and Latinx communities, and so did its vilification. Sensationalized claims that weed fueled crime, treason and sexual aggression by Black and Latinx men filled newspapers and speeches by prohibitionists. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, once declared that ”reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as White men.” His influence pushed the “Marihuana Tax of 1937” into law, thereby outlawing the most sales and possession of marijuana. Weed prohibition has been a major component of the War on Drugs, fueling the disproportionate policing of people of color and mass incarceration.

A Business Boom in the Making

Today, some states are turning the tide of prohibition against the drug, which research has found to be less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes. Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states. California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use. Several more have decriminalized pot—that is, pledged to punish the possession of small amounts with fines or less prison time than federal laws mandate. California, Oregon, Colorado, New Hampshire and Maryland have passed laws that allow people who were previously convicted of many pot crimes to expunge or seal their records. These factors have contributed to what CNN Money reported as almost $9 billion in legal sales in 2017.

Yet this increasingly powerful legal weed industry is freezing people of color out of the boom because people previously convicted of War on Drugs-era offenses cannot enter the industry. California is the only state that allows people with non-expunged felony drug convictions—most of whom are Black and Latinx—to apply for marijuana business permits. A 2017 study by Marijuana Business Daily found that people of color only make up 19 percent of cannabis businesses owners.

Costs also shut people of color out. Federal law prohibits banks from loaning money to the majority of marijuana businesses, and many don’t offer small business loans to people of color anyway. Green Rush Daily reports that prospective dispensary owners need close to $300,000 to cover licensing fees, rent, security and marketing. In Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana sales became legal in February, the application fee alone is $5,000. This confines ownership to those with the wealth to start such businesses—and the ever-persistent racial wealth gap pre-deterimines that most of these would-be entrepreneurs will be White. 

Still, Black and Latinx activists and entrepreneurs refuse to be written out of marijuana’s profitable future. We spoke to a number of advocates, businesspeople and non-profit leaders to learn how they’re changing state laws, promoting industry equity and navigating the tumultuous cannabis landscape to restore justice within their communities. While differing by locality and strategy, the all agree on one crucial aspect of the fight for marijuana equity: that legalization, not decriminalization, will pave the way.

“We’ve Been Doing This”

The battle begins at home for many activists. “We’ve already been in the industry,” said Ebele Ifedigbo, a co-founder of The Hood Incubator. The Oakland-based organization pursues empowerment for Black and Latinx communities within the legal marijuana economy by creating networking pipelines for members to access capital and job opportunities. “We hear a lot of stories like, ‘I’m a cultivator now because my grandmother taught me.’ We’ve been doing this. When other industries were leaving our communities—manufacturing or whatever—people turned to the underground marijuana industry for income. While this industry is transitioning, we want to make sure that we’re able to help folks hold onto the economic foundation and potential legacies of intergenerational wealth they can build in this [world].”

Organizations like The Hood Incubator only thrive in places like California, where the 2016 passage of Proposition 64 made recreational marijuana legal. This step of pot equity remains out of reach in the majority of states, where marijuana is either outright prohibited, heavily regulated for specific medical uses or decriminalized—a relaxed prohibition whose gray areas permit a chaotic but equally damaging form of enforcement.

Overcoming Legal Barriers 

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), one of the country’s leading drug reform organizations, charted the harm done to New Mexico residents of color in a 2017 report with the regional American Civil Liberties Union chapter and other local organizations. The report found that Black, Latinx and Indigenous women, as well as Black and Latinx men, were booked for all drug violations at a rate exceeding their percentages of the population in Bernalillo County.

Emily Kaltenbach, the DPA’s state director for New Mexico, also pointed to a controversial 2016 buy-bust program in which the Albuquerque Police Department sold drugs to homeless people before arresting them. She sees legalization as a strong avenue to both boosting the impoverished state’s revenue and bringing some form of justice to its citizens of color.

“We’re one of the few states that has not recovered from the last recession,” she noted. “We have very high unemployment rates, our children are living in very extreme poverty. I don’t see legalization as being the answer to our economic injustice, but as part of the solution. We can reinvest those dollars back into the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs, and that not only creates a more just economic environment but [can address] some of these racial disparities.”

The stigma of marijuana use and sales still affect people of color in states with legalization laws. Provisions within Proposition 64 allow Californians with marijuana convictions to petition courts to retroactively reduce or expunge their sentences, but the necessary legal resources prove too costly for many applicable residents.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who have these prior marijuana convictions, for which they’ve completed their sentences, could stand to benefit from Prop 64 relief,” attorney Rodney Holcombe observed. “Getting these services from a private attorney can cost hundreds of dollars. And not every county in California has a dedicated public defenders’ office, or post-conviction relief program at each office. Most low-income folks are kind of stuck.”

Holcombe works with the DPA to address this deficit by hosting legal clinics throughout California. The organization doesn’t track the demographics of people attending these clinics, but pointed to a 2016 study on how marijuana arrests historically played out in California. “Data generally suggests that Black, Latinx and White people use and sell marijuana at really similar rates, but Black and Latinx people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana violations,” Holcombe explained. “For Black people in California, they are twice as likely as White people to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors, and five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana felonies. For folks in the Latinx community, they are about 35 percent more likely as White people to arrested for any marijuana offense.” The DPA will host an expungement and job fair in the largely rural and under-resourced Inland Empire in June. “We’re hoping to help connect people with employers, enroll for health insurance, register to vote, expunge traffic violations—offer as many services as we can so people can really get back on their feet after this criminal conviction has knocked them down.”

Fighting for Weed Equity

While the DPANORML and similar organizations have helped remove legal barriers, people of color within the industry are also using their platforms to advance practices that promote equity. Shanel Lindsay took her legal background into the business when she launched Ardent Cannabis. Her Massachusetts-based company produces and distributes her own trademarked decarboxylator—a device that heats marijuana to a temperature where components like THC (which makes users “high” when ingested) can be extracted for proper medical dosage. Her own experiences with marijuana’s medicinal benefits mirrors that of many Americans, who found healing in cannabis that proved more effective and less addictive than pharmaceutical painkillers.

“I got an ovarian cyst, and I was going to have to treat it with some painkillers,” Lindsay, who is Black, recounted. “I wasn’t happy with having to take really high doses of acetaminophen because I was concerned about long-term damage to my liver. I thought, ‘Maybe I can use cannabis as a medicine.’ I made topical creams and edibles, and it really helped my cyst. I never had to have surgery on it, and that was fantastic. What wasn’t fantastic was having to prepare it—the process is very smelly, and I was spending a lot of money on materials and not getting consistent results.”

During this journey, she experienced the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black marijuana users first-hand. A police officer found marijuana in her car during a traffic stop in 2010—two years after the state decriminalized marijuana possession and around the time the aspiring attorney passed the state bar exam. The officers eventually let Lindsay go, but the experience left her believing that decriminalization meant nothing to users like her. “It is a first-step to legalization, but it is a discretionary tool that police can use or not use, and you see the encounters that happen with people of color.”

Lindsay started researching consistent decarboxylation in 2012, when Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana, and grew Ardent from there. But her experiences pushed her to pursue legal reform. She counseled for the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance and helped write Question Four, the now-passed initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Massachusetts. Lindsay’s work didn’t stop there, however, as legislators removed language from the bill regarding “full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.”

“It was almost like a re-legalization campaign,” she said about the groundswell of support from elected officials of color and community groups. “Not only did we get our original equity language restored, we also got other equity pieces in there.” That included priority licensing for applicants opening businesses in communities harmed by the War on Drugs, as well as those with previous marijuana use convictions. Lindsay now serves on the state Cannabis Advisory Board, in which she advises the regulatory commission (including several people who voted against Question Four) and still faces pushback over equity protocol.

Battling Industry Power Players

That backlash comes not just from traditional opponents—law enforcement, certain public health community factions—but from marijuana industry power players, who claim that allowing people with previous weed convictions into the economy could spark a federal crackdown. Patriot Care, a prominent Massachusetts dispensary company, provoked outrage by lobbying for exclusion last year. “Permitting those who have demonstrated the interest and willingness to ignore state and federal drug laws sends the wrong signals to those who would participate in the legal, regulated industry,” CEO Robert Mayerson wrote to the Massachusetts Health Council.

“A lot of bigger corps don’t really want to have this diversity and inclusion conversation until they’re called out on it,” observed Nelson Guerrero, co-founder of the New York-based Cannabis Cultural Association. The organization works on both building a cannabis industry pipeline for people of color and pushing for legalization and equity in the Tri-State area. It recently participated in a lawsuit against Jeff Sessions and the DEA to remove cannabis from Schedule I narcotics classification.

Removing the Cultural Stigma

Guerrero noted that he also face resistance to legalization from Latinx elders like his own Ecuadorian parents. “This War on Drugs has destroyed parts of South America, like Colombia and Nicaragua,” he noted. “I believe the Latinx community has such an issue with cannabis because of the drug trade and years of stigma when it comes to Latin America and drugs. My parents’ or grandparents’ generations see this as a narco-type conversation, something that caused thousand of deaths. Now, we actually have an opportunity to do something right for all of the wrongs done in the past few years.”

Guerrero, when trying to convince Latinx communities about legalization, relates stories about the benefits dispensaries serve to surrounding businesses—especially restaurants. He recalled going to Denver for the Women Grow Leadership Summit in February and staying near a “mom-and-pop dispensary,” which sat right next to a taco shop. “The taco shop benefits 100 percent, and there was even a 10 percent discount just because we went to the dispensary first!” he noted, laughing. “It’s an ancillary conversation, but one that in the Latinx community, in our experience, has been most successful.”

Time will tell if stories like these will outweigh the fear-mongering that marijuana opponents have clung to in since the beginnings of drug prohibition. For now, you don’t need to love marijuana to know what doors legalization and equity programs can open for communities of color.