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Minorities in Cannabis: A Brief Examination of African-Americans and Cannabis

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When the cannabis industry exploded to become the land of opportunity that it is today, we had the opportunity before us to ensure that this industry didn’t just replicate other industries in their imbalances in gender, color, background, class, and race.

A fresh, clean slate allowed the cannabis space to be shaped by its pioneers who had learned from their previous experiences and observations. Cannabis was going to be the place to “start over” and right all the wrongs of the modern-day industries that all too often allowed minorities to fall between the cracks.

Over the next several weeks, Oov Lifestyle will be exploring issues related to social justice in cannabis, where we will highlight many issues including minorities in cannabis who often have different experiences of cannabis than their white counterparts.

What is a Minority?

In its simplest terms, a minority represents any group that is not the majority. We usually use the term minority to describe groups of people in religious, racial and ethnic terms. Depending on the context, women can sometimes be lumped into that category as well. In the USA, the groups that don’t make up the majority (read: white men) are referred to as “women and minorities”.

A recent survey by Marijuana Business Daily places leadership and ownership in shares of cannabis companies being 20% by minorities. Combined, Hispanics/Latinos and African-Americans make up half of these minority individuals who hold ownership or founding positions in cannabis. On their own and even placed together though, each minority barely stacks up to the 81% of cannabis agencies that were founded by or led by white people.

The gap between the number of white people and minorities in cannabis is glaring, and it’s something we need to bring attention to.

Oov Lifestyle will be using our “Minorities in Cannabis” series to bring focus to important narratives that tend to go unnoticed in an often-dominated industry. This week, on the week that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we briefly examine the relationship between African-Americans and cannabis and their current standing within the cannabis industry.

Beginning with African-Americans in Cannabis

To put it bluntly, African-Americans have always had to fight to enjoy their cannabis without stigma or projections assigned to them.

Cannabis became aligned with African-Americans in the 1930s when the likes of Cab Calloway sang about the “Reefer Man”, and warnings were going around about the powerful potency of the “jazz cabbage”. While cannabis itself has a long, racist history targeting of many minorities, it became to be aligned with black culture when it was brought from places like Jamaica and the Caribbean into places like New Orleans and Texas.

The Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937 was a prohibition on marijuana that was wholly unfounded and based on the belief that cannabis was turning people against each other and creating dangerous situations. The rhetoric of the time described cannabis as a drug that “black men used to seduce white women”, among other racially-charged claims about cannabis.

Cannabis & the African-American Population Today

In modern times, the disproportion of marijuana arrests and criminal charges between people of color and white people is highly concerning. A report made by the ACLU in 2013 concluded that POC are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. This is despite there being no real discrepancy in cannabis usage between African-Americans and those groups that would be considered Caucasian (meaning that blacks and whites use the same amount of cannabis).

Sadly, racism still often comes into the discourse on marijuana and race. Last week Republican Representative Steve Alford of Kansas made a public statement suggesting that blacks were more likely to get “addicted” to marijuana due to “their character make-up – their genetics and that.” Remember, this was said in 2018, not 1930.

The conclusions that are made when you look at the high disproportionality of marijuana arrests support the very true notion that the war on marijuana has failed African-Americans. The impact of marijuana arrests are often felt a lot harder for people of color, and the implications of the marijuana arrests are harder to shake over time. This is especially important when it comes to operating in the legal cannabis space, where cannabis convicts are often disqualified from participating in the cannabis industry altogether.

As Rep. Alford shows, racism is still alive and well in the cannabis discourse. There’s something not right here.

Moving in a Better Direction

By looking at the small number of African-Americans who lead or own cannabis companies, recognizing how cannabis has disproportionally affected African-Americans and calling out the racial bias that still exists, we’ve been able to recognize that we need to move in a better direction.

We recently spoke to a friend who works in the medical community and also happens to be a woman of color. She noted that she had attended an event of fellow health practitioners that focused on cannabis, and she happened to be the only black woman in the room. That was her biggest takeaway of the event. “Something needs to change, and I need to find a platform to bring my message to,” she said, referring to that challenge as her own “grass ceiling” that she wants to break. There is an opportunity for more members of minorities to be at the table, and perhaps they shouldn’t have to wait to be invited.

Perhaps it’s up to the cannabis industry, alongside minority groups, to right the wrongs of the past that have led to a lower participation in cannabis by people of color. What are a few ways that the cannabis industry as a whole can change how African-Americans have been included and represented in the space? Here are a few ideas:

  • Advocate at your state level for a review of or change of oppressive drug laws that place any minority at a disproportion or disadvantage;
  • Help the justice system from stopping people’s lives before they start by organizing a campaign asking your District Attorney to review pardons for convictions on a case by case basis;
  • Look around your organization or boardroom table and take stock of exactly who is around your table. When you take steps to ensure the voices around your table are diverse, you will ensure that you are indeed making decisions for the cannabis industry, based on the experiences and needs of everyone.
  • Help highlight the work of African-American people in the cannabis industry by sharing their stories when you come across them — not because they occupy minority positions, but because they truly have something to offer;
  • Elevate the work of minority movements for cannabis such as the Minority Cannabis Business Association, that advocates for equity and equality among minorities, and see how you can be involved in their advocacy efforts.

The cannabis industry can learn a lot from the failures of our past when it comes to minority inclusion. We must take it upon ourselves to right the wrongs that led to certain groups being negatively affected by stigma and bias, and embrace the “newness” of the industry to be one that can seriously change the way that minorities have been represented in business.


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