This feature closely examines the injustices communities of color have faced in the name of the war on drugs and now in the name of legalizing marijuana. It is the seventh in our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.
For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part seven: Let’s talk about whitewashing the marijuana industry.
It’s October, which means it’s marijuana-harvesting season in Portland, Oregon, and marijuana literature is on display at nearly every doorstep, newsstand, bookstore, and grocery store. A special “Weed” edition of Newsweek greets me at the checkout line in Fred Meyer. The second edition of Willamette Week’s “Harvest Issue” finds me at home in the lobby of my building, and sitting next to a window in my living room, I catch a whiff of smoke from my downstairs neighbors. But I live on Portland’s “Green Mile,” Sandy Boulevard, the street with “the largest concentration of cannabis dispensaries on any street in the world” according to Willamette Week, so none of this comes as a surprise anymore.
Back home in New York, this openness about marijuana might have been shocking. The topic of marijuana legalization has haunted me and those in my community for as long as I can remember—from listening to my mother rail against weed as a kid at the dinner table to discussing legalization with college friends while we hid behind buildings, blunt in hand. Legalization felt more like a distant ideal than any reality in which we could ever hope to live. Now when legalization comes up, it’s hard not to notice how easy it is for some to conveniently overlook its racist underbelly and the monster it has been—and continues to be—for so many people of color and our communities. How even now our relationship to legalization is fraught with mixed emotions as we are forced to juggle our excitement with the realization that so many of our loved ones have suffered from its prohibition.
Because whitewashing marijuana makes it more palatable for a white populous, the dominating narratives primarily focus on the sweeping benefits of legalization: the amount of money states can make from taxing the drug; the possibilities of owning a cannabis business and the best places to do so; and the never-ending “can you believe they’re cannabis users” exposés. (Think: moms who say smoking makes them better parents.) While it may seem like this is all well and good because it’s in service of normalizing marijuana, these revelations of legalization are being used to bury the victims of marijuana policy—those whose lives have been ravaged by its criminalization. Focusing on these narratives is not only a ploy for rich, white investors, but a tactic to keep its benefits out of the hands of people of color and the poor. Communities of color spanning more than a century have watched as marijuana has been pinned to us like asterisks, first to point out our indelible differences from the white race, then to enslave us under the guise of a war on drugs, and most recently, to justify our lack of presence in the “Green Rush.”
What’s drugs got to do with it
Born out of the capitalist motive to quelch hemp production and fueled by xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 1900s, the criminalization of recreational marijuana use in the United States has been racist since its dawn. It has been heavily documented that Mexican immigrants, who entered the United States in large quantities following the Mexican revolution, introduced recreational use of the drug to the country, but sources such as Putnam’s Magazine, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and Scientific American detail earlier recreational use in the mid to late 1800s in New York, among other areas. Before then, how and when recreational cannabis use came into vogue in the United States is widely debated, with some claiming that it possibly dates back as far as the 1500s and even suggesting George Washington took part in the activity. Even the dominant use of the term “marijuana” in the United States is rooted in racist ideology. Since “marijuana,” or its Spanish equivalent “marihuana,” was introduced by Mexican immigrants, it was rarely mentioned in the United States prior to the 1930s, which is part of the reason early recreational use is hard to track. The decision to almost exclusively use “marihuana” in government documents and in the media at the time helped drive the passing of The Marijuana Tax of 1937 by painting a Brown face on the drug.
The propaganda and policies over the next few decades paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of what would become a $1 trillion four-decade long war on drugs, which one of his aides later admitted was a tactic to “[get] the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin.” Since then, the United States has seen a 500-percent increase in the number of people incarcerated, with communities of color, especially Black people, making up the bulk of those sent to prison by design. There is no doubt that the war on drugs has contributed to mass incarceration, a form of modern-day slavery, and marijuana has been a driving factor, with broken windows policing and policies like stop-and-frisk providing an endless supply of Black and Latino bodies.
Even with legalization on the tips of everyone’s tongues, the war on drugs persists. In recent years, Black people are still nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana-related charges than their white counterparts despite both groups using the drug at similar rates. Though under the Trump administration, marijuana arrests have become harder to track, in 2016, drug-abuse violations made up the highest number of arrests, 41.5 percent of which were for the possession or sale of marijuana. The policing of cannabis has not only torn apart families and communities and had lasting effects on the future of those incarcerated, it has also proven to be more deadly than the drug itself.
The decriminalization of marijuana in some states is often perceived as a marker of success in the war on drugs, but communities of color have yet to reap the full benefits of that change. In fact, the road to legalization itself began in 1996, when Californians voted to legalize medical marijuana with Proposition 215. Although most described the state’s law to have enacted de facto legalization, according to the Washington Post, “California arrested nearly half a million people for pot” from 2005 to 2016 alone—even after decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011. Some of the other states that have decriminalized certain amounts of cannabis have actually experienced higher rates of arrest, specifically of people of color. For instance, in 2012, Chicago passed an ordinance stating that people caught with small amounts of weed should be ticketed but not arrested. However, it wasn’t until 2016, when Governor Bruce Rauner signed a statewide bill, that the city saw a significant decrease in arrests, and Black people still made up the majority. The same can be said for New York City, where decriminalization has decreased the number of arrests overall, but remains a significant problem and has largely benefited white people. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, the side of the street or the park determines the likelihood of being stopped for marijuana. Precincts in white neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side and Park Slope have reported a number of punitive interactions that is three times lower than those in nearby low-income, minority neighborhoods such as East Harlem and Prospect Park. While as a whole decriminalization means a step forward, it isn’t full legalization, it isn’t reparations for an unjust war on people of color, and it shouldn’t be lauded as such, especially when the victims of these racist laws are still the overwhelming majority of those targeted.
Those who are looking to profit from the booming marijuana industry are working hard to change perceptions of the drug by widening the gap between “criminals” and this new wave of “investors.” And since marijuana is federally illegal, regulations on who can—and can’t—work with cannabis largely excludes people who likely have been victims of the war on drugs, but there are some states taking steps toward system reform. In August, Senator Cory Booker introduced a glimmer of hope with his proposed “Marijuana Justice Act,” which would effectively make marijuana legal on a federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act and allowing resentencing or the expungement of sentences of those arrested for the use and sale of the drug. The Marijuana Justice Act would also allow states to be sued for disproportionately arresting and incarcerating people of color and low-income folks (which every single state would be undoubtedly guilty of), among other legal restructuring that would impact how marijuana laws are enforced and prisons are funded. What this could mean for these communities is getting the justice that has long been owed, but it would also require the United States to take a long look at the way it has purposely and systematically worked to keep people of color in chains both figuratively and literally—something this country has proven time and time again that it has no intention of facing.
When the face of weed is a dollar sign
Interestingly enough, there are no clear statistics on race and ownership in the cannabis industry, but last year BuzzFeed reported that Black people owned only 1 percent of the thousands of storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States. For those who do own their own cannabis businesses, the policy and policing around them prevent many from feeling stable within the industry. In a 2016 BuzzFeed Blue video titled “Does the Weed Industry Have A Race Problem?” Rolling Stone columnist Amanda Chicago Lewis stated, “Black people who own dispensaries are much more likely to be targeted by police. They’re much more likely to be targeted by local politicians.” This disparity leaves even less places where people of color can have agency within their communities and provide safe spaces for those who historically have been burned by the enforcement of policy around the drug. “For something to appear safe, for everyone to feel good and okay with us legalizing marijuana, they want it to be a white industry,” says Lewis. When everything in this country is set up to make white people feel safe, even a drug that has never been used to dehumanize or criminalize them, where do people of color go to heal? And if healing is asking too much, where do people of color go to cash in on the promised “bootstrap theory” when all odds are still stacked against them?
The lack of POC weed business owners in legalized states also means that often already gentrifying areas are becoming even more unaffordable for those living within them. In Denver, due to zoning restrictions, dispensaries are popping up at an accelerated rate in low-income, minority, and industrial areas that provide affordable housing, urban community space, and artists’ refuge. Those taking the place of said spaces are typically—you guessed it—rich, white men. The phenomenon is so widespread that city officials have been looking for ways to even it out. In Seattle, the proliferation of cannabis dispensaries have served as an unwelcome indication of a changing neighborhood, one that activists have been fighting hard against. That trend will likely repeat itself in Oakland and Los Angeles come January, despite proponents’ best efforts to create an equal playing field, and unless federal reform comes fast, it will likely spread across the country in the blink of an eye as more states legalize. By the time we reach full legalization, which would include allowing those who have been convicted for marijuana offenses to have a stake in the industry, the spaces that would have been affordable for them to open up cannabis businesses in their communities won’t exist anymore.
So then the argument stands that at least legalization has brought down the number of arrests in fully legalized states. That’s a win, right? It should be, but even in places where weed is legal, people of color, especially those underage, bear the brunt of its over-policing. Although Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2012 and the overall arrests for people of all racial groups are down, people of color are still disproportionately arrested for marijuana drug offenses. In a 2015 article, The Guardian reported that “even after legalization, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. Blacks were also much more likely to be charged with illegal cultivation of pot or possession of more than an ounce.” A year later, a similar report in the Washington Post concluded that “the racial disparity in arrests didn’t budge. In both states the post-legalization arrest rate for blacks was just over double that for non-blacks, just as it was before legalization.” Which means legalization may change some things, but it doesn’t impact the rate at which Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. And, unfortunately in 2017, not much progress has been made to reverse that.
Who will light the way
Earlier this year, the internet roared when Chance The Rapper, who was arrested for getting caught smoking marijuana in high school, proclaimed, “Let everybody out of jail for selling weed before y’all start making it legal.” Legalization in the time of 45 is still moving forward despite some eyebrow-raising comments from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The further we get from the first state legalizing and the closer we get to legalization across the country, the more the mainstream narrative shifts to appeal to rich, white investors in an attempt to erase its dark legacy for capital. Long before Chance took to the stage, women of color have been especially vocal in drug-policy reform, inclusive marijuana licensing laws, and the fight against the injustice and hypocrisy of this shift. For many of them, championing these issues is not just an act of compassion or activism, it’s a daily lived reality. The people they are fighting for are not hypothetical bodies in uniforms or lives distant from themselves. They are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, and other loved ones and friends, and ultimately, they are a reflection of themselves and their communities—and of their place in society.
Black women, specifically, are at the forefront of change. For Wanda James, the first Black woman to own a legal medical dispensary in Colorado, it’s a personal offense: Her brother, Rick, served time in jail for possession of marijuana. She speaks out against the injustices of those profiting from an industry that criminalizes Black and Brown folks. In a 2016 Mic video, James states, “When you start to look at the number of white males making billions off of this plant and Black males serving time because of this plant, it does not makes sense that in America, your zip code determines whether you’re a millionaire or a felon.” She credits her success in the industry to the neighborhood in which she grew up; Rick was raised on the other side of town in a low-income, minority area. “We have decided to wage war on America’s lower class. A big part of that lower class happen to be Black and Brown…. When you target a group of people, you make them criminals for the very basis of profiting for people who are investing in privatized prison systems and slave labor, ” says James.
In California, activists Amber Senter, Andrea Unsworth, Nina Parks, and Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho, all of whom have carved a space for themselves in the market, founded Supernova Women, an organization that seeks to “foster community empowerment through holistic education, advocacy training and skills acquisition.” They influenced the creation of Oakland City Council’s Race and Equity initiative, which looks into the disparity of marijuana-related arrest rates for low-income people and people of color and how the industry affects unemployment. Supernova Women also helped bring about Oakland’s Revised Medical Pot Program, which serves to level out the playing field in the medical market. Not only do the new laws provide an avenue for licenses for those convicted of a crime since medical legalization passed in 1996, it would also help to alleviate some of the stress dispensaries put on communities affected by gentrification. The program requires anyone applying for a license in Oakland to have lived in the city for 10 of the last 20 years and to be earning a salary on par with or below the city’s average median income.
Also on the policy front is Indian American lawyer and activist Shaleen Title, who was recently appointed to Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commision. She is known for advocating for and actively seeking out more women and people of color in the drug-policy reform movement. Title also cofounded the THC Staffing Group, a recruitment firm for jobs within the cannabis industry that seeks to connect employers to diverse candidates from affected communities. And then there’s New York-based journalist Mona Zhang, who founded Word on the Tree, a website for the latest news in cannabis and the war on drugs that started off as a newsletter to bring light to the need for drug-policy reform. Her motivation to create the newsletter was learning about the racial disparities in drug law enforcement that she knew she, as an East Asian woman, wouldn’t have to face. But this fight shouldn’t be solely for women of color, or people of color alone. Through her reporting, Lewis is someone who is bringing light to these issues. She isn’t the only white woman to do so, but we need even more women like her to speak up and fight. As white women are making a space for themselves within the industry, they have the most influence on whom else the door opens and closes.
We as a society can’t continue to discuss legalization in a positive light—especially on a national, mainstream level—without directly linking back to the history of white supremacy that accompanies our relationship to marijuana today. Neither the government nor these rich, white men can be trusted to reform the industry, so it is up to us to prevent them from dictating the laws so that they can profit from criminalizing our brothers and sisters. Until police and politicians stop targeting people of color in and outside of legalized and decriminalized states and every person serving time in prison for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses is released and allowed the opportunity to work within the industry, there is no world in which legalization is anything other than simply another bastion of white supremacy—and in which we are anything other than complicit.
Check in next month for the next piece in our series on fragility!