Many African-Americans Say 'No' to the Legal Marijuana Industry

By May Wilkerson 06/09/15

Blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for weed despite growing efforts to legalize.

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Blacks in the U.S. have paid a steep price for pot prohibition, even in states where it is now legal or decriminalized. So it should come as no surprise that many black Americans are reluctant to jump on the legal weed bandwagon.

On average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, according to a 2013 ACLU report, despite very similar rates of use.

As more states legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use, and other states decriminalize small-scale possession, the country’s legal weed industry is taking off.

But even in states like Colorado where marijuana is now legal, discriminatory arrest practices persist, according to a study released this year by Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Although overall charges for pot possession, distribution and cultivation in Colorado fell almost 95%, from about 39,000 in 2010 to a little over 2,000 last year, black people are still much more likely than white people to be arrested for pot-related offenses.

This, combined with the devastating burden of addiction and drug abuse on the African-American community, have discouraged many people of color from participating in the lucrative industry, which raked in at least $52.5 million in tax revenue in its first year in Colorado, according to the DPA estimates. And marijuana advocates say black Americans are missing out on viable business opportunities.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the country’s biggest marijuana trade association, has formed a committee to brainstorm ways to get more people of color involved in the industry.

"There's more of a negative stigma surrounding this industry—the [cannabis] culture and religion [in the black community] plays a heavy factor," said Lakisha Jenkins, president of NCIA’s California wing. "Since we're the ones who've been incarcerated [the most for marijuana possession and use] it makes it rather difficult [for some people of color] to see it as a positive and viable industry.”

"It's kind of a mixed message; one minute you're being arrested [for selling marijuana] and the next minute (year) someone's throwing up a building and selling the very same substance legally," said Rev. Del T. Phillips, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, which represents about 50 black churches in Denver. "We feel like it's sort of a double indemnity against our [black] community because before it was legal, there were more African Americans being charged and put into the prison system for the very same thing."

Rev. Phillips says he's also worried about a proliferation of marijuana businesses in struggling black communities, leading to a rise in drug use and crime. "They're not going to be opening up in protected communities," he says. "There won't be any of these places located in gated communities because [the residents] won't allow it; we shouldn't either."

But others see the marijuana industry as a huge opportunity to help the very community that prohibition has hurt the most. Tracy Williams and Wanda James from Denver, both African American, have started a marketing and consulting firm called Cannabis Global Initiative, which specializes in helping marijuana companies build their business models.

"I think [legalizing cannabis on the federal level] is inevitable within the next five years, so we need to be in position," says Williams of the black community. "Because it's like a tidal wave, once you release freedom from a bottle, it's hard to stuff it back in."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.