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Legalization is a big step — but it’s time to bring equity to the cannabis industry 

click to enlarge Minor convictions feed a racist prison system. - EVERETT HISTORICAL / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
  • Minor convictions feed a racist prison system.

In the ’90s, Wanda James’ 17-year-old brother was sentenced to 10 years in a Texas prison for possession of 41/2 ounces of cannabis. While in prison, he spent four years picking cotton.

“When you hear that there’s a young black boy, in the mid-’90s, 1996, picking 100-pounds of cotton a day to purchase his freedom, that pissed me the fuck off,” she once told Now This. “It was time to do something different.”

James went from serving in the Navy as a young woman, to working on Barack Obama’s finance committee in 2008, and acting as now-Gov. Jared Polis’ campaign manager back when he was running for Congress, among other political work. Together with her husband, Scott Durrah, she opened Simply Pure in 2010 in Denver — Colorado’s first African-American-owned cannabis dispensary, edible company and grow operation.

While Durrah, a chef and former Marine, is running for a seat on Denver’s city council, James is continuing her work as an outspoken advocate for equity in the cannabis industry and the justice system. James knows that her brother’s story is just one of countless other African-Americans’, people who have had their lives damaged or ruined by a marijuana drug conviction. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” found that while marijuana is used roughly equally by black and white people, African-Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. And between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the U.S.

This isn’t an accident; it’s the result of 100-plus years of negative messaging. Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for three decades starting in the 1930s (and a xenophobe and trailblazer for prohibition and demonizing cannabis) once said, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

So let’s get this out of the way: Not everyone who uses or sells cannabis is a drug addict, uses it as a gateway drug, is connected to a drug cartel, or is a person of color. In fact, 2018 sales in Colorado of $1.5 billion prove quite the opposite — a whole lot of people are using it and always have. But, a long history of cannabis being associated with poor people of color has been used to justify “public safety protections,” which, as we have seen, still have disparate consequences for communities of color.

Seven years after Colorado and Washington voters first legalized recreational cannabis, the racist roots of the War on Drugs are still bearing fruit, this time by stifling the entrepreneurial aspirations of many people of color who may want to work in the cannabis industry.

The fight for equity and inclusion in the industry is making some headway, however. For instance, California’s recreational law allows people with previous marijuana convictions to work in the cannabis industry and to clear marijuana convictions from their records. The city of Denver announced in February that city residents with low-level marijuana offenses prior to legalization can go through a process to wipe those from their record.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released a statement at the time saying, “This is about equity for our communities of color and individuals who were disproportionately impacted by low-level marijuana convictions that are no longer crimes in Colorado.”

But in the rest of the state of Colorado, people with past marijuana convictions must go through a much more arduous process to request that such convictions be expunged. Meanwhile, those with a past drug offense, even a low-level one, can’t work in the cannabis industry. They also may have trouble finding other work.

On that issue, there could be one statewide change on the way: The Legislature passed a “ban the box” bill, which forbids employers from asking applicants about their criminal history in the first round of the hiring process. You’ve seen the question on job applications — “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” It’s used as a screening tool — applications of those who answer “yes” are often thrown in the trash.

In a recent interview with the Indy, Gov. Jared Polis said he supported that bill (though as of this writing, he had not yet signed it), and that he’d also support clearing low-level marijuana convictions and allowing former marijuana convicts to work in the industry.

“If activities are now legal, under state law, we shouldn’t penalize the future employment prospects of people who’ve violated those laws for something that’s not illegal,” he says.

It would be great to see Colorado start correcting some of those injustices. For now, legalization is sweeping the nation, and the white-male-dominated cannabis cash-cow industry is continuing to grow. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, since January 2014 the state has seen $6.2 billion in marijuana sales. This is the same Schedule I controlled substance that has been used to devastate communities of color for decades. Yet people of color were less likely to be given a chance to get into the industry on the ground floor.

Now, after the initial “green rush,” it might cost over $1 million to start a dispensary, James says. She’s also found that, across the nation, licensing structures and policies, along with the inability to get bank loans, often keep people of color out of the industry. 

Legalization is a righting of a wrong in our country, but without correcting the racist outcomes of the former system, it is still injustice. What we really need is for cannabis to be legalized on a federal level; for all non-violent marijuana convictions to be cleared; and for those currently serving prison sentences for what used to be a crime to be released. In addition, we need to look at the licensing structures, dispensary zoning and other issues that end up leaving people of color out (or taking advantage of them). And we should create a pathway for entrepreneurs who want to start a small business in the industry.

The good news is, people of color who have made it into the industry are doing their best to hold open the door for others. Take Marie Peel, Chief Green Officer of Denver’s High End Transportation. She’s one of four African-American entrepreneurs (including her wife, Ruby) who launched the luxury private car business four years ago.

“In the beginning people saw us as a black woman-owned part of the LGBTQ community — ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” she says.

They’re probably eating their words now. The successful luxury car service specializes in providing the “Colorado experience,” which includes 420 tours. Peel says she understands the value that an African-American-owned company brings to the industry. “It’s important to put people of color on the forefront of positivity and change,” she says. She adds: “All of our drivers are women of color.”

James says her most important advice to budding entrepreneurs is: “Build a team.” “Too many people think this is something you do on your own,” she says. “You got to have people who understand retail, finance, running a business — who understand the cannabis industry and have ties to it.”

It’s time we moved past the drug war, started opening doors to people of color in the cannabis industry, and repaired some of the damage that has been done by our country’s racist and backward laws. The time to act is now. As James says, “We either get in now or we’re never going to get in.”

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