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Immigrants Fighting to Gain Ground in Cannabis Amidst Precarious Conditions

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Last month to kick off our Minorities in Cannabis series, we explored the history and experiences of African Americans in cannabis. We drew attention to the very real fact that there is a phenomenal number of disproportionate cannabis arrests in the black communities, with significant barriers facing African Americans who use cannabis or want to emerge as cannabis entrepreneurs.

We use our platform of Oov Lifestyle to be brave, bold and to call out some of the important issues facing cannabis culture, legalization, and the industry. Now, we’re ready to turn the focus on another important sector of our societies and their relation to cannabis: immigrants and newcomers.

As someone who has built a global career and has had the privilege of working with minorities of all backgrounds, it’s been a huge push-pull of emotions as a witness to what’s been happening in the USA with regards to minorities in cannabis. The cannabis legalization movement is impressively blazing forward at state levels despite recent federal challenges providing people like me (a white woman) incredible opportunities, yet the country in many ways seems to be regressing in major ways for human rights in cannabis.

Watching America’s Climates Drastically Shift

It’s been a tough political climate to watch unfold in the USA this last year, as DACA’s Dreamers recipients stand on shaky ground, the threat of a wall between USA and Mexico creates further divide among different racial groups, and the USA’s federal government not doing much to make America seem like the land of the free and home of the brave it once was.

People who once enjoyed the freedoms and liberties of a great country are now being treated as though they’re not welcome. They’re having many conditions placed on their ability to stay in the USA, where they’ve built their lives, due to shifting immigration policies.

Cannabis for immigrants and newcomers is a big ball of wax and significantly complicates things. This underbelly extends beyond the issues facing African-Americans that we discussed to reveal some serious systemic problems for immigration and the legal system. Like African Americans, many other minorities in the country are unable to professionally flourish within the cannabis industry.

This is a look into the history and culture surrounding cannabis and immigrants and minorities, highlighting some of the challenges immigrants in the USA have to face in terms of cannabis industry participation. Recognizing it’s been a powerful fight, we’ll also recognize some of the triumphs that have announced many minorities as victorious in the fight for cannabis access and freedom and liberty for all.

Immigrant History of Cannabis in the USA

As we recounted in our article looking at the role of cannabis in African American culture and history, the migration of people from other countries to the USA has created quite a smoky narrative in terms of cannabis origins.

Cannabis has a sordid history in slavery with Portuguese and British colonial roots in Brazil and South America as well as the Caribbean via Jamaica respectively in early years. Indian influences made their way into the Caribbean with migratory patterns with people from India working alongside Jamaicans tending to cannabis, which was used for its properties to subdue and pacify people.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1911 is when the strong connection between Mexico and the USA for cannabis developed. Refugees fled Mexico bringing cannabis as a smokable substance to be enjoyed. Similar to the way it was brought into African American culture, cannabis began to be associated negatively with Mexican Americans and other minorities.

Many cannabis publications and businesses choose not to use the term “marijuana” due to its racist history. As explained by Harborside, the term was spread through journalism and popular culture by William Randolph Hearst, known for his fervent anti-cannabis advocacy. He is responsible for fueling the fires that portrayed African Americans and Mexicans who use cannabis as involved in criminal activity and to be avoided due to their perceived danger to society. This narrative created by many cannabis prohibitionists also created the political climate that led to the game-changing Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The first victim of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was Mexican-American Moses Baca who was caught with a quarter-ounce of cannabis and sentenced to serve time in prison in Denver. At the time, the judge that sentenced him said that he considered marijuana to “be the worst narcotic”, claiming that “under its influence, men become beasts.” So began the fight to bring justice to minorities in cannabis.

Recent Arrests of Immigrants on Cannabis Charges

Time has passed since there were such Reefer Madness-esque portrayals of different ethnicities in cannabis, but sadly, immigrants and other minorities remain a target of discrimination in the cannabis world.

The issue of possession of cannabis has become an issue for many who have landed in America, documented or otherwise, from around the world seeking citizenship. In states where cannabis isn’t legal for possession at the state level, cannabis possession can becomes a federal offense. With federal offenses, Immigration is flagged, and those who are in the process of citizenship can be facing deportation if deemed to be breaking the law.

With President Trump’s reversal on Obama’s Dreamers’ legacy and his ruthless attacks on undocumented persons in the USA, people who have lived all their lives in the USA are facing deportation. Such is the case of Omar Figueroa who was being defended last year as he faced deportation due to growing cannabis in Northern California before Proposition 64 was implemented. Figueroa is married to an American citizen and has two children, and is in the process of applying for residency, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was doing everything they could to send him back to his home country, hinging it all on the cannabis growing conviction.

Similarly, last September, a Mexican born teen who was found in possession of one gram of cannabis at a Caribbean festival in Brooklyn last fall faced deportation, causing people to rise up in protest.

Recent data we explored from the ACLU showed that black and brown people were being arrested disproportionally compared to white people for marijuana convictions, with 3.73 times more arrests. A subsequent set of data released in 2016 from the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance showed Latinos and Hispanics to have 1.4-1.7 times more arrests in areas of California than white individuals.

Along with African-Americans and people of Latino descent, other pockets of immigrant populations are being targeted and busted for cannabis-related offenses. Places like Washington, Colorado, and California have been seizing tens of millions of dollars of cash and crop from grow options overseen by Chinese nationals who faced criminalization.

Diversity Programs Bring Balance to Cannabis

The cannabis industry is rising up in important ways to be able to make amends of sorts to those minority groups that have been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs. For instance, Oakland, California’s Equity Permit Program prioritizes minority participation in cannabis by granting licenses to minorities who have been in the past prevented from participating in legal cannabis.

The move by Oakland’s City Council shines an important light on the issue of the ironies of cannabis and minorities have been negatively affected. “When you look across this country, the people who are making money in respect to cannabis and recreational marijuana are white men,” said Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks to Rolling Stone, “The people who have historically gone to jail for the same activity are predominantly African-American and Latino.”

As more states jump onto the important moving train of legal cannabis, many of them are taking responsibility for the War on Drugs and the disproportionality of arrests for minorities. They’re offering various breaks to minorities looking to get involved in cannabis, with initiatives arising in Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Ohio to attract minorities as legalization shifts.

These moves hopefully will right the wrongs of the past persecutions where they weren’t deserved to open the door for participation to some of the brightest minds from all around the world who can benefit the cannabis industry.

Tales of Triumph for Minorities in Cannabis

The great thing about the cannabis industry is that it has recognized that there is a cloudy history that we’re not always proud of when it comes to cannabis prohibition. People are eager to fix the mistakes of the past when it comes to minorities as the industry works to move past the stigmas that have brought about and fostered untrue negative associations of marijuana.

Diversity, while it’s on people’s radar, hasn’t quite reached what it could, with a vast majority of cannabis CEOs being white men, yet cannabis is doing better than a lot of industries in that regard.

Minorities like African Americans, Latinos, and people from Asia and the Middle East are finding ways to combine their own cultures with cannabis and embrace opportunities where available.

Minority-led businesses making news include those who aim to be 100% women run, are owned by African American leaders like those by Wanda James, or embrace influences from around the world to bring all cultures to cannabis. For instance, New York, Dominican-born cannabis chef Miguel Trinidad combines Filipino cuisine and culinary influences from his life around the world to provide pop-up cannabis dining experiences in New York with 99th-Floor.

Support Minorities in Cannabis

As cannabis consumers, and likely people with our own ties and story to immigrants who fought hard for the liberties we enjoy today, we owe it to cannabis to help elevate diversity.

Ask your local dispensary about their diversity policies, or push your favorite cannabis publications to feature stories about more people in cannabis who represent minorities that you often don’t see represented in the cannabis industry. A great place to start is our website, where we feature stories of every day cannabis users from all different backgrounds, who are moving the needle to for more inclusiveness of minorities in cannabis. Our founder Ozzie Ozkay-Villa is from a family of immigrants from Turkey and her husband from Mexico.  She identifies with the struggles of newcomers to the USA, fueling her interest to elevate minorities in cannabis.

Cannabis is globally enjoyed and should belong to without persecution. We can all elevate our voices on behalf of minorities in cannabis as we all strive towards a future where cannabis is universally legal, and no one has to face negative consequences for enjoying such a beautiful plant that so often brings all people together in harmony.

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  1. Thank you so much for lifting up this important issue. I recently learned about this particular injustice. Glad to see it being talked about on a public forum.

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