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Is marijuana legalization just as racist as prohibition was? 

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click to enlarge Why do women of color feel underrepresented in the cannabis industry? - MATTYSFLICKS VIA FLICKR
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  • Why do women of color feel underrepresented in the cannabis industry?

Where there's money, novelty and potential fame, people want in. For some, though, actually getting into Colorado's burgeoning cannabis industry is more difficult than for others.

Take the experience of Taneesha Melvin, a 28-year-old Colorado Springs native. This spring, she says, she left her job at Cheyenne Mountain Resort in search of new employment. As a medical marijuana patient herself, Melvin figured her knowledge of strains, experience volunteering at a local dab lounge and service background positioned her well to be a budtender at one of the city's 133 dispensaries. So she dropped $150 on a background check and other licensing fees and set out on the job hunt.

Melvin recalls following up on applications and having difficulty getting anyone's ear, though positions weren't yet filled. Each individual snuff was unremarkable, but after more than a dozen applications for active listings yielded a total of zero responses, let alone any offers, deeper rejection set in.

"I just felt something was off," Melvin said about her experience seeking employment in the marijuana industry. "And that's when I thought in my head, 'Hmmm, I don't see any other African-Americans in there, do I?' It's all white people."

She has no confirmation that she was skipped over because of her race. A dispensary in question didn't return Indy's request for comment. But Melvin suspects her race played an inhibiting role in the process.

"You'd think people would get over these attitudes; you'd think we could live right," Melvin said. "But I know I can't be the only person this happened to."

Statewide, 29,177 people are licensed to work in the marijuana industry, but the Department of Revenue doesn't track their demographic information.

So we can't know exactly who works in the industry, but we do know who can't. To get a job at any level, you need what's called a badge from the Marijuana Enforcement Division. To get that badge, first you need proof of Colorado residency (state-issued driver's license, pay stub, utility bill, credit card statement or anything with an address). Then you must meet requirements: over 21; no convictions of any drug-related felony; no felony in general in the past five years; not a licensed physician recommending medical marijuana; never had caregiver status revoked; not an employee of MED; not a family member of a MED employee; and not in law enforcement.


Those standards were established at the outset of legalization when legitimacy was a top priority, but critics contend a clean record is unfairly exclusionary, considering African-Americans were disproportionately criminalized under prohibition.

There may be other barriers keeping minorities out of the industry. Larisa Bolivar, the Latina heading the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, is researching those hurdles for her master's thesis on marijuana policy reform at Regis University.

"There's fear — fear of persecution, alienation from conservative family members," she told the Indy about her findings. "But there's also lack of resources. You can't just get a loan to start a business in this industry. It's all private capital. And we just don't have that good-ol' boy network."

Bolivar says even without the hard-and-fast numbers that she's also been unable to obtain, inequality is apparent. "We can already see this playing out, with the wave of wealthy white people rolling in," she said, adding that wave will crest soon — both good and bad news for minorities. "Once marijuana becomes federally legal, it's going to be so cheap. There won't be millions to be made; [dispensaries] will be just like liquor stores. So for minorities who can't get in now, they've already missed the boat."

His sense that discrimination persists in the legal marijuana industry frustrates Melvin's boyfriend, Calvin Powell, who remembers getting thrown into the back of a paddywagon for having a joint in his pocket in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I've got a lot of friends locked up for less than an ounce of weed," he told the Indy. "It's ridiculous to be going Jim Crow in this industry in 2016 when there are so many blacks still locked up for having a dime bag."


  • "You'd think people would get over these attitudes; you'd think we could live right."

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