Marijuana Equity Programs Help People Of Color Access Growing Industry

By Kelly Burch 02/25/19

"We're not just budtenders, not just security guards anymore. We're owners now," said a marijuana dispensary owner.

Black businessmen who are part of a marijuana equity program

It has been well-documented that the war on drugs has disproportionately affected communities of color. Now, as marijuana legalization becomes more common, some municipalities are helping people of color get into the legal marijuana business, saying it's a matter of social justice. 

"We actually do have to overcorrect. People from our communities, black and brown communities, were the one first ones to be criminalized. Why shouldn’t we be the first ones to benefit?” Kassandra Frederique, the New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told USA Today.

Initially, many licensing laws for legal marijuana businesses excluded anyone with a criminal record. However, policymakers and social justice advocates realized that that was continuing a cycle of discrimination.

"You make the industry super-hard to get into, that only people who are squeaky clean can get into it, because you know all eyes are on you. However, that is the approach always, always, that you take to whitewash things and make it clean. That's literally what you say before you fire the black people and the minorities,” said Adam Powers, an African-American man who works in the cannabis industry in Washington state. 

Now, policies are emerging around the country to make legal marijuana businesses more accessible to people of color, who are more likely to have marijuana-related offenses on their criminal records.

The California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 called for "persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty be offered assistance to enter the multibillion-dollar industry as entrepreneurs or as employees with high-quality, well-paying jobs.”

In Massachusetts, equity programs run by the Cannabis Control Commission have a similar task. 

Tucky Blunt, who was convicted for selling marijuana illegally years ago, now operates a legal dispensary thanks to the equity applicant program in Oakland, California, which prioritizes businesses operated by people who have criminal convictions for selling marijuana. 

Blunt said that many in his community had their lives disrupted by marijuana convictions. 

"It affected everybody in my circle because it was only targeted to us. I knew white people that was selling weed that never went to jail. The war on drugs was just about putting as many of us in jail in possible. It tore up a lot of families,” he said. 

Now, he is happy to make his mark on the legal marijuana industry, which continues to be dominated by white men. 

"We're not just budtenders, not just security guards anymore. We're owners now," Blunt said. "To be able to sell this legally in my city, literally 10 blocks from where I caught my case, I'm fine—I wasn't going to let anything stop me. I'm the new kid on the block, and I'm here to change the game."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.