A few weeks ago, the racial inequities of cannabis (both the illegal and legal kind) blew up amid the protests and riots following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Large groups of looters broke into nearly every dispensary in Oakland.
Debby Goldsberry of Magnolia Wellness, an Oakland dispensary that was hit especially hard, thinks the crimes were very much a part of the protest. She said this the day after her shop was smashed to smithereens and put out of commission for at least several weeks. According to Goldsberry, the glee evinced by the looters on the security-camera footage (“they danced on the desks,” she said) showed that they were making a statement, not just burgling the place.
“People say it wasn’t political and that it had nothing to do with the protests,” she said. “But I think it did. The same conditions that led to the killing of George Floyd led to this.”
If their actions can be traced to the same racial inequities that led to the killing of George Floyd, it might have something to do with the fact that the legal-weed business is so widely seen as a thing of comfortable, middle-class (and above) white people. It’s widely seen that way because that’s largely what it is.
Most people in the pot business are pretty liberal, and most of them—at least among the owners of smaller, independent businesses—are well aware of the inequities surrounding cannabis. These attitudes are more widely shared in the pot business than in most other businesses. But the fact remains that despite all the rhetoric and the formation of equity programs meant to give Blacks and Hispanics a leg up, not much progress has been made to even out the racial disparities.
The most recent solid statistics come from a 2017 survey in 2017 revealing that less than a fifth of all owners or major shareholders in cannabis companies are people of color. Even more astonishingly, only 4.3 percent of that group were African Americans. That number is probably a little higher in California compared to the national average, but any trip to an industry conference or trade show should be enough to tell the tale: cannabis isn’t green, it’s white.
The problems are, to some degree, the same problems that yield similar statistics in other industries: chiefly, lack of access to capital. But there are other problems that are endemic to pot. The history of cannabis in the United States is a history of discrimination. It was outlawed largely to go after minorities early in the 20th century, just as many Blacks were starting to migrate northward where there were fewer Jim Crow laws on the books to keep them in line. At times, this has been explicitly stated. Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau in the ’30s, was the most notorious anti-pot government official of his time—or really any time.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he was quoted as saying. “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.”
Politicians have since been more circumspect about what they say in public, but it’s not hard to trace the line from Anslinger to the public musings about the Evil Weed from people such as former “drug czar” William Bennett, or Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. In the 1980s, Sessions was quoted as saying he liked the Ku Klux Klan just fine “until I found out they smoked pot.”
Sessions was a U.S. attorney in Alabama at the time. The quote cost him a federal judgeship. But then he won a Senate seat and, eventually, the leadership of the Justice Department, from which he was ejected thanks only to the lunatic whims of Donald Trump. Now he’s running for Senate again, and he might win. Pot might be legal in a bunch of states, but when it comes to minority equity, how much progress has really been made?