The growth of the cannabis industry is encouraging to anyone who supports legalization. Recent reports have found that the sale of legal cannabis this year alone will bring in a whopping $7.1-billion – representing a 25 percent increase from the year before - while other forecasts indicate that cannabis sales could yield as much as $23 billion by the year 2020.
With the burgeoning inclusion of other business people – such as venture capitalists and entertainers launching their own brands of cannabis products – there has never been a more encouraging time to successfully enter the legal cannabis industry.
Yet despite the myriad of opportunities presented by the fledgling industry, they are not equally available to all Americans. Non-white Americans remain disproportionately unrepresented in the cannabis sphere – and if history is any guide, their inclusion will require a sustained push by activists and business leaders alike to alter the current disparities.
Lack of diversity is embarrassing
Like many industries in America, the representation of non-whites in the cannabis industry is downright embarrassing.
An example is the nation's dispensaries: One estimate found that less than one percent of America's dispensaries are run by people of color. According to Corey Barnette, who owns the District Growers cultivation center and the Metropolitan Wellness dispensary in Washington, D.C., the disparities are striking.
"When you look at who owns dispensaries, if you look at who owns cultivation centers, who wins licenses and things of that nature, it's an industry that is dominated by white men," says Corey Barnette.
The racial disparity is reflected in the years-long War on Drugs that preceded the current march toward legalization. Studies have found that while racial groups across the United States tend to use illicit substances – including cannabis – at similar rates, blacks still account for 31 percent of those arrested for drug violations. That number jumps to 40 percent when discussing individuals incarcerated for drug offenses.
So while the liberalization of national and state cannabis laws is a positive development, its evolution was at least partially brought about through generations of unfair legal and police practices.
The practice of racially-disproportionate arresting of blacks for cannabis possession and use continues to this day, even in states in which the substance is legal: While overall arrest rates in Colorado and Washington fell dramatically between 2008 and 2014, one study shows that blacks are nonetheless still arrested at double the rate as non-blacks for cannabis.
Laws stacked against non-whites
As if the history of disproportionate arrest and imprisonment of people of color wasn't enough, state laws regarding an individual's participation in the cannabis industry are also stacked against non-whites.
Many states prohibit people from participating in the legal cannabis market if they have criminal records, especially if they have been convicted of a felony. The disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates thus further compounds the inequality facing non-whites as they try to make it in the cannabis sphere.
While the statistics surrounding the cannabis issue are depressing, there is still hope on the horizon. Industry leaders and government actors alike are trying to steer things in the right direction as far as making the cannabis industry open to all.
One initiative out of California inspires hope in many activists. Contained in the state's Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) – the ballot initiative believed likely to pass this November that would legalize recreational cannabis – is a provision that would allow those currently serving prison sentences for a cannabis-related conviction to petition their sentencing.
According to the AUMA, if the person can prove that they would not have been guilty of their offense – or would have been guilty of a lesser offense – after the enactment of the AUMA, they could have their sentence dismissed or recalled.
These sorts of reforms are important, says Amanda Reiman, because they create an easier pathway for knowledgeable people who had been convicted of cannabis-related offenses to become involved in the industry.
"We have to make sure that it's not just the big guys – the guys who were the kingpins during prohibition – who become the legal producers, but it's the guy who's selling eighths on the corner in his neighborhood so that he can make rent," says Amanda Reiman, the Manager of Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
"We need to make sure there's room for him. And in any traditional industry, he would be completely marginalized. Which is why we need to make sure this industry is different."
Other promising initiatives are those aimed at bolstering the communities in which legal cannabis sales are or will be thriving. These include public education campaigns, recycling programs, and even initiatives used to promote diversity within the industry.
There are industry trailblazers
Amber Senter, Co-Founder Of Supernova Women.instagram.com / @supernovawomen
Many people of color in the cannabis industry recognize the roadblocks that the industry has presented to their community, and have stepped up to try to increase representation.
One of those entrepreneurs is Oakland-based Amber Senter. Amber is the founder of Supernova Women, an organization working to increase the representation of women of color in the cannabis sphere, and is also the COO of Magnolia Wellness, a medical cannabis dispensary that has served its Oakland community since 2009.
Another trailblazing entrepreneur is Wanda James, who – along with her husband, Scott Durrah – founded Simply Pure, Colorado's first black-owned cannabis dispensary. She sees a way forward for people of color within the industry, particularly women of color.
"Women in this industry are coming full circle," James said in an interview with Democracy Now! "We've seen about 36 percent of the management positions in this industry are women…I can't speak for the entire black community, but I will say the response to me and people wanting to work for me is overwhelming."
That James and other people of color have met with such success is an encouraging sign for the industry as a whole. It is also reassuring for those people of color looking to do business in the industry.
As laws around cannabis loosen and public perception on the issue changes, we will hopefully soon provide more opportunities in the cannabis business sphere to non-whites – and thus correct many of the mistakes that have thus far plagued the fledgling cannabis industry.
Stephen Calabria is a New York City-based journalist who also serves as a Media Advisor for nyvapeshop.com.
Banner image: Wanda James and Scott Durrah, Co-Founders Of Simply Pure, ( twitter.com / @WandaLJames )