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Reefer Madness, the War on Drugs, and Discriminatory Marijuana

For what it's worth

By Ed Note

Think back on the days and nights sitting there with your “buds” smoking pot, solving the world’s problems, and creating fantastical contraptions to smoke with and sell.  Then perhaps misfortune raised her ugly head and you ended up being one of the many arrested and not unlikely if you are black, found yourself away from your family, friends, and the pursuit of happiness and prosperity in many cases for years.  

An example is Derek Harris, a military veteran, arrested in 2008 Louisiana for selling .69 grams of marijuana to a cop.  Initially convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison was re-sentenced in 2012 to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law. Derek was eventually released but mainly because of the growing concerns of Covid in incarceration.  His attorney, Cormac Boyle made this comment, “Righting the harms done to a person through incarceration includes supporting their health, housing, and adjustment to their long-deserved freedom…” I feel that the ‘long-deserved freedom” should include having rights restored and in regard to this dissertation the ability to become part of the ‘legal’ industry that has been part of his life.

People who have smoked pot most of their lives have likely encountered police.  If you are one of them and ended up with a felony marijuana conviction you are not going to be a pot entrepreneur because the business has been designed to not allow you in.  My logic would conclude that having a marijuana conviction of any degree would be the exception to the “excluded felony offense.” One would think that perhaps because you were part of the generationally fought battle against the illegality of pot you would be most appropriate for its business. But no… this is not in the legislature.

There is a very viable question of whether this legislature was created to specifically exclude black entrepreneurs from becoming part of this industry.  After all, it is clear that black individuals have historically been disproportionately arrested and subsequently over sentenced for marijuana law violations. The general understanding is that black people are almost four times as likely on average to be arrested for cannabis possession. The American Civil Liberties Union concluded that even though white and black people consume cannabis at “roughly equal” rates, black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

An interesting fact I pulled out of this report is that since 2010 with the increasing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana this national trend in racial disparities has not diminished.   The ACLU reports that there were actually more arrests for marijuana in 2018 than in 2015. In some states, black people were still six to ten times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

My point is, if someone with a felony possession charge wants to legally become part of this growing industry they are not allowed.  Since blacks are disproportionately arrested it would only raise eyebrows and the legitimate question of whether legislature was created to actually stop blacks from becoming part of the cannabis industry.  An industry which according to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration alone, brought $411.3 million in excise tax, $98.9 million in cultivation tax, and $335.1 million in sales tax, totaling $845.3 million in tax revenue for the third quarter of 2019.  So, an individual with a felony marijuana conviction (predominately blacks) is not afforded the opportunity to becoming involved in something with an estimated economic impact of $77 billion in 2020. Ergo, the effects of the generations-long war on drugs are still prevalent in marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, even when it comes to business opportunities.

As reported in the Marijuana Business Daily, in 2017, black entrepreneurs made up roughly 4.3 percent of cannabis business owners.  Presently marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes in 36 states and completely legal in 15 and the industry is set to continue booming. The opportunity for prosperity is abundant over the board, you’ve done your time and you feel you can finally make some of the money you have talked about for hours during those smokey imaginative spells.  But alas, you are not one of the privileged power players who have made sure they kept it all to themselves.   No, not all the pot but all the money generated from its legality.  Even if you are a young black entrepreneur, have no felony, with degrees and corporate business experience there are still insurmountable obstacles, mostly financing.

Of course, everyone must overcome these extreme financial barriers to enter the industry.  And while most banks won't finance cannabis businesses because it's still federally illegal, costs for even a start-up must normally have to be self-financed or backed by venture capital.  If you're rich and well-connected, you already have the advantage. 

Fortunately, there are other ways of having enough money to start a business other than owning a couple of rich parents. Let’s look at the venture capital network.  Venture capitalists are funding people who have access to them, whether you’ve gone to their school, you’ve worked for their companies, or are friends with their friends.  Yes, it’s a self-propelling community, which I don’t see many minorities tapped into.

To be fair, there are proposals out there claiming to close the gap on discriminatory practices in awarding licensing for pot related businesses, but even those seem to have language that once again raises an eyebrow.  As a number of marijuana legal states have implemented social equity programs intended to give minority entrepreneurs a chance, they seem to be ineffective at best as they include controversial predatory language which hopefully is being successfully challenged. In Massachusetts for example, only two black applicants from the state's social equity program managed to obtain licenses although the state issued a total of 105 provisional and 79 final licenses.

The federal legalization of hemp, or cannabis that does not contain more than 0.3 percent THC, opened a large and generally unregulated market of CBD products.  Of course, this was marketed as a luxury wellness item, which once again precludes blacks in general. Dr. Rachel Knox, an endocannabinologist who specializes in how THC and CBD affect the body, notes that cannabis is medicinal and can be used for wellness but, “people of color, by and large, do not have the luxury to pursue wellness.”

The Knox family is spearheading endocannabinoid treatment in the United States; Rachel Knox's mother, Dr. Janice Knox, founded the American Cannabinoid Clinics in Portland, Oregon.  Her father, Dr. David and sister, Dr. Jessica Knox, also practice treating the endocannabinoid system with natural exogenous cannabinoids like CBD and THC.  Although the effort to legalize marijuana, both recreational and medical, is making headway in states across the country, many black patients are wary of its prescription. Dr. Knox clarified this, "People of color don't want to go to jail, so if their brother, their sister, their mom, or dad, or cousin, or friend was arrested for simple possession or public consumption, they're not gonna want to use it.  Even in a legal market, even as medicine." 

Some clinicians with more advanced mindsets have finally concluded that the endocannabinoid system is heavily involved in a plethora of bodily functions, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, sleep, and metabolism. Although cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years the medical community generally dismisses it.  If more doctors gave greater study to the endocannabinoid system and the benefits of cannabis perhaps the stigma of prescribing it would diminish and hopefully the criminalization of it likewise.  It is clear, overall education will help combat the racist and classist stigmas.  Hopefully, this will come sooner than later.

Proper education will be of great significance in a battle that has raged on through decades of alarmist content about cannabis and those who use it.  With anti-cannabis propaganda pushed by mainstream media and movies like Reefer Madness, millions were convinced that its use would force raving lunacy.  Let us not forget President Richard Nixon's infamous "War on Drugs,” which helped perpetuate the demonization of both recreational and medical marijuana. While the crusade against American drug use was largely seen as a failure, many doctors are still skeptical of cannabis use and law enforcement still greatly targets blacks over others.

While cannabis has been federally approved to treat a variety of conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, epilepsy, anxiety, sleep disorders, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it amazes me that it remains federally illegal and that state doctors don’t consider this to prescribe its use.  Clearly as long as it's considered a Schedule 1 substance, many in the medical community will remain skeptical of its clinically proven uses and will bow to the power of the traditional pharmacological medications solution.  

Back to our original premise, the racial and legal inequity of the cannabis industry.  It’s time to fight against this for black entrepreneurs and felons who have pot convictions.  It’s time for this nascent cannabis industry to be dismantled and rebuilt on the legal front, business front, and medical front from the ground up.  It’ll likely take years, but it’s not too late to be reformed for the better. 

As our world evolves so should this fledgling industry to allow minorities, felons, and those with the love of weed to build hope for their futures and the future of the industry.

Ed Note is an editorial contributor and Editor Emeritus for TTE.
To contact Ed Note on this or any contribution please email:

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