Rooting Out Racial Disparities in the Legal Cannabis Industry
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. These are three names out of many—all of them unjustly murdered for the “crime” of being black in America. Protests have erupted across the U.S. with participants demanding expedient criminal justice reform. As the legal cannabis industry expands, we must be careful not to allow existing structural inequalities to hinder the limitless potential and growth of black entrepreneurs in the cannabis space.
Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt Jr. grew up in Oakland during the War on Drugs era. His interest in selling cannabis began when his grandmother took him to a dispensary in 1999. While in high school, he maintained a full-time job while also holding down a 4.0 GPA. Tucky did sell flower on the side, but viewed it as just another gig. In 2004, he was arrested for possession with the intent to sell and placed on felony probation for a decade.
If you’re thinking that’s an incredibly harsh sentence for a first-time offender, you aren’t alone. Unfortunately, judges have been dishing out these draconian sentences to black men all across America for decades. “Racial profiling and zero tolerance policing—the treatment of whole communities as suspicious in themselves, and the idea that cops might stop, arrest, or even kill you simply for jaywalking—are just business as usual until they provoke a crisis,” writes Kristian Williams in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. In 2020, the compounded crises of a global pandemic and aggravated social inequality led to the unnecessary and unjust death of George Floyd, who became a global symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement and the shared goal of racial equity.
Environmental factors such as ongoing violence create situations where black men feel that they must exert a high level of vigilance in order to maintain their personal safety in public. According to a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States, with black men almost twice as likely to die as any other group of men. Under these types of conditions, the cycle of mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement has continued.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state to open recreational dispensaries. Since then, several states have followed suit. Unfortunately, cannabis still remains illegal at the federal level due to the Controlled Substances Act, despite a 2019 Pew Research Poll showing that roughly two-thirds of Americans support cannabis legalization. Piecemeal policies from state to state add to the confusion of citizens and law enforcement officials, creating yet another gray area that allows for race-based discrimination against black cannabis entrepreneurs.
Ironically, Tucky’s exposure to the harsh realities of the criminal justice system qualified him for Oakland’s Cannabis Equity Program. As the first person to open a dispensary under the program in 2018, he led Blunts + Moore into greatness and showed other black cannabis entrepreneurs that ownership is within reach. Local initiatives such as Oakland’s Cannabis Equity Program provide valuable support to communities of color, but they aren't without challenges. "So far, I think the Oakland Equity Program has had successful moments. Overall, the program requires more education and funding, which is something other states should take away as they build their programs," says Tucky.
Though government initiatives such as Oakland’s Cannabis Equity Program and Illinois' R3 Program—which offers grants between 25k and 850k to organizations in areas devastated by the War on Drugs—help tremendously, community support is invaluable. Support black-owned cannabis businesses such as Tucky’s Blunts + Moore. Follow #BLM and other black Twitter hashtags to learn from the conversation. You can also call your local representatives to demand that they create an equity program with some of the tax revenue from cannabis proceeds. For example, Illinois pledged $31 million in cannabis tax revenue to repair damage in the communities most affected by the war on drugs. The power of change is in our hands.
African-Americans are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis-related "crimes." If you wish to see the systemic racism inherent in this disparity counteracted, then we strongly recommend you support the work of The Last Prisoner Project. The LPP is an organization dedicated not only to changing our laws, but to freeing every person incarcerated on charges related to cannabis and expunging their records. You can learn more about The Last Prisoner Project by clicking here.
Author: Elizabeth Cunningham