Black and Brown communities have long been leaders in the field of marijuana businesses. Unfortunately, The United States government has never viewed them as business owners and passed serious laws penalizing and criminalizing their ventures. Now, as marijuana is viewed as the next “big tobacco” and white people enter the sector for lucrative opportunities, Black and Brown communities continue to be adversely affected and left out of a sector they pioneered. The laws are changing but many communities of color are still adversely affected.
The modern day “War on Drugs” was created by President Nixon in 1970 and according to History.com,“the War on Drugs is a phrase used to refer to a government-led initiative that aims to stop illegal drug use, distribution and trade by increasing and enforcing penalties for offenders.” In 1994, President Nixon’s former Domestic Policy Chief, John Ehrlichman openly admitted that the “war on drugs” was started with the intention of jailing Black people and anti war protestors. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” Ehrlichman said. Although he admitted the war on drugs was a tactic to suppress and devastate Black families, the war on drugs and the stereotypes it created have lasting effects to this day.
Some of these effects include over-policing policies; the implementation of the “three strikes” law; over incarceration; and immigration policing policies, which put any immigrant that has ever been arrested at risk for deportation, regardless of how long ago they were arrested. Many times, the catalyst for these devastating effects was a minor marijuana arrest for Black and Brown people.
The Cultural Roots of Grass
Marijuana use and sales have been a part of business innovation for Black people for decades. One can look to the very genre of music created by Black people, rap, to see this is true. The iconic debut studio album Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg was released in 1993 by Death Row Records and featured the timeless classic “Gin in Juice.” The chorus of the song, “rolling down the street smoking indo (a strand of weed) sippin on gin and juice” leaves no room for confusion — Snoop is talking about smoking weed and doing so casually, in public.
This song – and others before it – made it possible for later rappers to openly rap about smoking weed on major studio albums. Songs like Bone Thugs n Harmony’s “Smokin’ Buddha” and Bizzy Bone’s “Fried Day” were both released in 1999 – and continue to be – smoking anthems 20 years later.
“The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg was arguably THE weed song for the new millennium. Snoop Dogg literally opens the song up telling people to “Blaze it up, blaze it up. Blaze the weed up then!” and closes his verse with, “if you believe in the S you’d be relieving your stress” aka – if you smoked some weed you’d be a lot calmer. While Snoop’s part hit its Nate Dogg’s perfectly delivered one liner “smoke weed everyday” and continues to be sampled and used today across genres including EDM, a genre whose 63% of listeners are white, according to a 2014 Nielsen study.
Snoop Dogg was and continues to be a rapper that is unapologetic about his love of marijuana and “rolls the best weed cause [he] got it going on.” However, earlier in his career Snoop was arrested several times for possession of marijuana; in 1998 and 2001, 2006 in Burbank California, and in 2012 in Texas.
Thankfully for him, his celebrity status, and the changes in cultural perceptions of marijuana use and distribution, he has been able to take his love and knowledge of marijuana to enter the increasingly legal business of marijuana distribution. He is a partner at Casa Verde, a cannabis focused venture firm; launched a marijuana product line in 2015, Leafs by Snoop; and has joked about baking marijuana brownies with Martha Stewart on their VH1 cooking show, Martha and Snoop.
The Dark Side of Green
However, for non-celebrity Black men and men of color the opportunities aren’t so plentiful or even possible. For many of them they are stuck in the loop of Snoop’s earlier career stage and continue to face arrest and be barred from entering the sector because of previous marijuana related arrest.
Presently only 23 of the 50 states have passed laws that decriminalized marijuana however, decriminalization is not legalization and in many cases people can still face a fine, charge, or even jail time for the possession or use of marijuana. For Black and Brown people this is especially true. Although Oakland voters voted to make marijuana related arrest one of the lowest public concerns, Black men continued to be arrested for marijuana related things at a rate of 77%, versus 4% arrest rate for white people. The same has been true in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Even in Colorado, a state where marijuana use and distribution is legal, Black people face higher rates of arrest for marijuana related offenses.
The data is currently not being collected in such a way that tells researchers, advocates, and the general public what the rates for marijuana related arrest, imprisonment, and citations are for Hispanics. However, 49.6% of marijuana related arrest has been Black and Hispanics.
Regardless of what the law says, Black and Brown communities are continuously unjustly over-arrested, fined, and jailed for marijuana related things. In short, decriminalization does not mean the end of over policing. And expunging records is a slow and tedious process that some states aren’t even taking on.
One can argue that in the states where marijuana sales and distribution are allowed are places where Black and Brown people can enter the legalized sector to make money from decades of knowledge they already have in the field. However, because early laws prohibited people with any marijuana related arrest in the background to open a dispensary – consequently because of the war on drugs this meant Black and Brown people – the earliest legal marijuana ventures where launched by overwhelmingly white males.
Furthermore, Black and Brown people were understandably experiencing trepidation about entering a sector that had once completely devastated their families and community at large.
The War on Drugs laid the groundwork for the now famous Clinton quote about “super predators,” aka a racist terms used to paint Black and Brown youth as fearlessly, drug infused, violent menaces to society. In 1994, the “three strikes” crime bill was passed into law. This law essentially made it mandatory to jail someone for life after their third offense. Some lawmakers supported the bill because they believed the bill-included provisions that would reinvest money into Black communities and help drive money to research that would show disproportionate rates of arrest of Black people but the final bill had none of that.
A Turning Tide
Perhaps in an attempt to not repeat history Black lawmakers in New York State are refusing to support bills that do not clearly state and outline a plan on how the legalization of marijuana for sale and consumption will directly assist and benefit Black and Brown communities.
This type of stand by lawmakers of color is especially necessary given that the marijuana industry is projected to be well over $10B dollars by 2021.
What was once the war on drugs in now the hottest, fastest growing industry on which white men can capitalize. Without elected officials willing to fight for Black and Brown communities to benefit from this multi-billion dollar sector in policy, many legalization and decriminalization laws have been shortsighted and unjust. Legalizing marijuana is not enough if there are no federal policy driven actions to rectify and release those who have been unjustly jailed for marijuana use and/or distribution.
It is not enough to legalize marijuana without creating several equitable in roads for Black and Brown communities to enter the sector and become lucrative business owners.
Former House Speaker John Boehner should not be allowed to financially benefit from an industry he himself spoke of in a disparagingly manner less than a decade ago while the family members of Black people are imprisoned for engaging in the very same sector.
The beginning of justice for the “marijuana crimes” committed by Black and Brown people looks like making sure the monies generated from these sales goes directly to helping Black and Brown business owners secure business loans, actively expunging records, commuting prison sentences, and mentorship for aspiring dispensary owners whom are Black and Brown. It looks like seriously assessing policing practices that continue to target Black and Brown communities and Black and Brown people being able to lead in a sector they have always been natural leaders.