An Open Letter about Equity and Justice in Cannabis
We are cannabis organizers. We work in the emerging field at the intersection of the cannabis industry, racial equity, and restorative justice. (This is the fourth draft of a letter that will continue to evolve.) We come from a diverse range of communities across the United States, and we write to demand recognition and support in a time of moral crisis in this field.
In the face of unfolding inequities, built upon a decades-long, racist War on Drugs, an informal network of organizers and advocates has been agitating for change. We do this work out of love and necessity, but we are largely unsupported by the cannabis industry and by the traditional funders of equity work. Cannabis organizers tend to be, unsurprisingly, women of color, many of whom have been directly impacted by the War on Drugs. We lack funding and basic infrastructure, yet we have to negotiate directly with both multi-million dollar corporations and policymakers.
This letter lays out our concerns, our needs, our analysis of the landscape, and our solutions.
Is legalization living up to its name?
While thousands of people remain in prison and jail for cannabis convictions, American cannabis companies are going public through the Canadian stock market and receiving billion dollar valuations. In 2016, 653,249 people were arrested in the United States on cannabis-related charges – meaning that even as legalization sweeps the nation, over half a million people are still losing their liberty, access to education, access to housing, and access to future employment, every year.[i] While magazine covers advertise the medicinal benefits of this plant, hundreds of thousands of low-income people are denied safe access to it in states that have already “legalized.” This unjust situation is compounded by the failure of city and government officials to implement and fund equitable and reparative cannabis policy.
In Los Angeles, now the largest recreational cannabis market in the world, the District Attorney refuses to aid in the expungement or reclassification of an estimated 200,000 cannabis-related convictions.[ii] The County Board of Supervisors has yet to pass a cannabis policy framework, but they’re moving forward with a $3.5 billion jail construction plan. These decisions limit access to employment, housing, education, and public benefits, and they create an unnecessary lack of skilled workers.
In Colorado, young people of color have been arrested at higher rates for cannabis possession since legalization happened, even though cannabis usage itself has not increased, and arrest rates for young white people have declined.[iii] California is already targeting communities of color through impaired driving laws,[iv] and the state is not providing working class and low-income communities of color places to legally consume cannabis without risking a citation, eviction, or other forms of continued criminalization.
Meanwhile, a cannabis company based in Los Angeles achieved "unicorn" status, by receiving the first billion dollar valuation in the industry,[v] the day before they backed out of funding an expungement clinic at LA Trade-Technical College. That same company has since opened a storefront on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where the mayor of New York City recently declared that cannabis consumption will be legal only for people without convictions on their record.[vi] The same company is also advocating against the right to cultivate cannabis in one’s own home in the state of New York. Neither the industry nor the policymakers can be trusted to deliver equitable cannabis policy.
Who profits from cannabis?
While people of color (POC) have been disproportionately harmed by the prohibition of cannabis for decades, they are overwhelmingly underrepresented in the industry. Estimates of POC business ownership in the cannabis industry range from ownership of 1-2% of businesses[vii] to 19%,[viii] but even the latter is outrageously low, given that Black people have been 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.[ix] Those statistics themselves are skewed because the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports do not track data by ethnicity, which means that arrests of Latinx people are often mis-categorized as arrests of white people.[x]
On the other hand, people of color remain the backbone of labor in the cannabis industry throughout the US, preliminary research shows. Increasingly, the cannabis workforce includes undocumented workers recruited to cultivate and manufacture in New York and California, and they bear significant risk of deportation in the current climate. Despite a long-term presence building the cannabis industry before legalization, people of color in cannabis are rarely rewarded with substantial wages, worker protections, healthcare, a voice at work, or, most of all, a share in profits and ownership for having that knowledge and professional expertise.
The 2018 Senate Farm Bill contains language, written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that would legalize hemp at the federal level, but it would bar people with felony drug convictions from participating in the hemp industry. In Pennsylvania, prior cannabis convictions prevent people from joining the medical cannabis workforce. In Illinois, those same convictions have been preventing people from becoming cannabis patients. Given the racial bias in the criminal justice system, these provisions disproportionately harm people of color yet again. We support the rights of all formerly incarcerated people to have a reasonable chance to work in, and benefit from, this industry.
While states like Colorado and Washington decided to exclude people with cannabis felonies at the onset of their legalization, courageous cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as the state of Massachusetts, have decided to make restorative justice and economic healing a priority through the creation of “Social Equity Programs”.[xi] The success of these programs, however, depends on factors beyond attaining a license. If the goal of equity programs is to repair the harms and reverse the trends caused by cannabis prohibition, they will require significant wraparound services. Instead, these programs are suffering from delays and lack of funding, and social equity applicants are suffering.[xii][xiii][xiv]
What does success look like?
The success of all Equity Programs will be measured by how many Equity-Operated Businesses are thriving 3-5 years from now. Like all traditional start up businesses, equity business owners need education around compliance, capital acquisition, business planning, ongoing business consulting, corporate formation assistance, and personal finance management.
But our definition of equity should not be limited to licensure. Success will also be measured by the number of people of color in the management and employee leadership of cannabis businesses, and the ways in which the cannabis industry provides high-mobility, living wage jobs and new pathways to health, wealth, and wellness for communities of color.
Many community-based organizing groups in affected communities are interested in being part of the conversation on equity in cannabis, but they lack the time, information, and resources to fully participate. Cannabis organizers, on the other hand, are working hard to reach these organizations and communities, but we are stretched to the limits and need support to create the spaces where community, industry, and policymakers can dialogue.
We are advocating for:
- Earmarking of cannabis tax revenue for communities directly and disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition (as indicated by Proposition 64 in California and various equity policies nationwide).
- Community-based organizations to receive the bulk of that tax revenue, in proportion to that impact.
- Job training, worker protections, healthcare, living wages, unionization, worker-owned businesses, and other business development programs in the primary and ancillary cannabis industries.
- Social Equity Programs at local, state, and federal levels that offer prioritized licensing, business assistance, and mentorship to people who have been directly impacted by cannabis prohibition.
- Annual audits of Social Equity Programs to ensure that they are benefiting equity applicants and not exposing them to predatory relationships.
- Annual tracking and reporting of cannabis arrests, infractions, and other forms of enforcement.
- Education for communities of color about the health, wellness, and economic impacts of the cannabis plant and the cannabis industry.
- Corporate social responsibility requirements for businesses that profit off of the cannabis industry.
- Automatic expungement, post-conviction relief, and other aspects of criminal justice and policing reform.
- Emergency assistance for small farmers of color.
- Research and Development facilities that are POC-focused and POC-led, which fight the stigma and perception in communities of color.
- Access to jobs and ownership in the cannabis industry for all individuals seeking cannabis, regardless of prior criminal convictions.
- Affordable and/or subsidized cannabis medicine for low-income patients.
We believe that we have a short but vital window of opportunity to change the course of the cannabis industry -- and by doing so, we can prevent further harms to the most impacted communities and create a model of reparative economic and criminal justice. We cannot achieve these gains in equity without the staffing, power mapping, landscape analysis, convenings, toolkits, digital organizing, leadership development, and other aspects of infrastructure that allow for a movement to make change.
We are confronting a multi-billion dollar industry with a demonstrable opposition to equity, justice, and repair. We need your support for our initiatives, we need it soon, and we will not rest until we receive it.
[i] “Drug War Statistics.” Drug Policy Alliance, 2016, www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics.
[ii] Tinoco, Matt. “Why Has Los Angeles’ DA Been Slow to Expunge Old Pot Convictions?” Capital & Main, 8 March, 2018.
[iii] Markus, Ben. “As Adults Legally Smoke Pot In Colorado, More Minority Kids Arrested For It.” NPR, 29 June 2016.
[iv] Roberts, Chris. “California Is Still Arresting Too Many People of Color for Cannabis.” Leafly, 22 August, 2017.
[v] Koren, James Rufus. “”L.A. Pot Retailer MedMen Has 12 Shops, a $1.6-billion Valuation, and, Coming Soon, Canadian Stock.” Los Angeles Times, 25 May, 2018.
[vi] Mueller, Benjamin. “New York City Will End Marijuana Arrests for Most People.” The New York Times, 19 June, 2018.
[vii] Lewis, Amanda Chicago. “How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America's Weed Boom.” BuzzFeed, 16 Mar. 2016
[viii] McVey, Eli. “Women and Minorities in the Cannabis Industry.” Marijuana Business Daily, Sept. 2017.
[ix] Edwards, Ezekiel et al. The War on Marijuana in Black and White. ACLU Foundation, 2013
[x] Garcia, Lynda. “The War on Marijuana Has a Latino Data Problem.” ACLU, 14 June 2013.
[xi] Mock, Brentin. “California’s Race to the Top on Cannabis.” City Lab, 5 Feb. 2018.
[xii] Taylor Jr., Otis R. “Oakland’s Marijuana Equity Program Is Hurting Those It Was Supposed to Help.” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 July, 2018.
[xiii] Enwemeka, Zeninjor. “Marijuana Entrepreneurs Given ‘Priority’ in Mass. Are Struggling to Get through Licensing Process.” WBUR, 26 July, 2018.
[xiv] Fox, Hayley. “Los Angeles Licensing Delays Hit Minority Applicants Hard.” Leafly, 23 July, 2018.