Although medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than two decades, the new year brought the arrival of recreational legalization. California’s retail cannabis shops opened on Jan 1, in what is estimated to become the world’s largest market for legalized recreational marijuana. Due to the slow rollout of cannabis regulations throughout parts of the state, dispensary doors didn’t open in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles until recently. A crucial part of the new cannabis regulations are equity programs, put into place to help communities hit hardest by the “War on Drugs,” which was created to criminalize and vilify people of color (POC).

Currently, marijuana business owners and founders are over eighty percent white, according to a chart released by Marijuana Business Daily. It’s estimated that of the 3,200 to 3,600 marijuana dispensaries in the U.S., less than three dozen are Black-owned—about one percent of all cannabis retail shops. An industry built off the intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit of low-income POC now excludes those who made the industry possible, and states must recognize and attempt to reconcile the damage done to generations of families by the War on Drugs.

Equity Programs Repair Damage of The War on DrugsEquity Programs Repair Damage of The War on Drugs

Even the word “marihuana” comes from a federal campaign to criminalize cannabis by associating it with Mexicans. After the U.S.-Mexican War ended many Mexicans living in the conquered territory become U.S. citizens, but American laws were not extended to them. Most lost their land rights and property, effectively becoming foreigners in their native land. As time progressed, public officials petitioned the Treasury Department to outlaw marijuana, which by that time had been widely sensationalized. Officers in Texas made claims that marijuana gave users a “lust for blood” and “superhuman strength,” and that Mexicans were giving this “deadly” drug to American schoolchildren. In New Orleans the newspapers associated marihuana with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes and other “social deviants.”

Fast forward to today. The “Marijuana Menace” has created an underclass of citizens by making it difficult to vote, get a job, rent a home, or receive student loans due to cannabis charges. By the second week of January, however, San Francisco’s recreational market opened with America’s history in mind. To be eligible for the Equity Program the War on Drugs must have impacted your life in some form; additionally, you must live in SF, be a majority owner in your business and qualify as low income. Additional eligibility qualifiers include a prior cannabis-related arrest or having family members who were arrested for the sale, possession, use, manufacturing or cultivation of cannabis. Furthermore, as an “incubator,” prospective businesses must use local and inclusive business practices to support the community. Local residents must perform thirty percent of all work hours, and owners are to provide a community investment plan to businesses and residents within 500 feet of their property.

Los Angeles has created a similar social equity program. “We are L.A. We are leaders. We take on the tough issues,” stressed City Councilman Herb Wesson prior to the vote on the city’s regulations. “I’m ready to level the playing field so that everyone has a fair shot at reaping the rewards of this booming industry,” Councilman Curren Price added, “because we shouldn’t just be rolling out the red carpet to those individuals with deep pockets or powerful corporations.” Pennsylvania is a great example of this all-too-common phenomenon. Their medical marijuana program requires growers to pay a $10,000 non-refundable application fee, a $200,000 deposit and proof of $2m in funding, with at least $500,000 in the bank—hardly an equal opportunity for prospective business owners.

“I’m ready to level the playing field so that everyone has a fair shot at reaping the rewards of this booming industry, because we shouldn’t just be rolling out the red carpet to those individuals with deep pockets or powerful corporations.” Councilman Curren Price

Florida and New York have put into place regulated monopoly structures, only allowing a handful of dispensary license holders within the state. Colorado similarly excludes anyone affected by the War on Drugs. The Colorado dispensary application asks whether applicants “have been charged or convicted of possession, distribution, manufacturing, cultivation, or use of a controlled substance, including probation or parole.” If you answer yes, your application is automatically denied. Marijuana possession charges make up nearly half of all drug arrests, and POC are more likely, sometimes ten times more likely, to be targeted and arrested for drug-related charges.

The Opposition

Many see these equity programs as a step in the right direction—but not everyone feels the same way. A hopeful business in Ohio, PharmaCann Ohio, LLC, was denied one of the twelve licenses awarded by the state and is now suing the state over its equity provisions. PharmaCann argues the “racial quota” provisions in the state medical cannabis law run afoul of the state constitution’s equal protection clause. PharmaCann wants the court to order the Ohio Department of Commerce to award licenses to only the top-scoring applicants (they ranked twelfth of eligible applicants) and to put a temporary order to stop the department from issuing provisional licenses to the two minority-owned companies the state awarded under Ohio’s equity provisions.

PharmaCann argues that these provisions for the economically disadvantaged “cannot be enforced unless the preference is supported by a study with historical data demonstrating discrimination in the industry,” going on to say that the law’s quota “is unsupported by any study and is permanent in nature,” placing it in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In an additional attempt to state their case, PharmaCann policy director Jeremy Unruh said in a statement, “Our company values diversity and inclusion. Remedying the effects of past discrimination is a worthy goal of the Ohio legislature . . . In this case, however, there simply is no basis in evidence that economic disparity exists in an industry that itself doesn’t yet exist in Ohio.”

Unruh fails to acknowledge not only his own state’s history of economic disparity, but the many studies plainly demonstrating discrimination against POC in an industry that has been booming far before states decided to legalize the plant. Unlike other industries, where experience will get you ahead, the marijuana industry has largely failed to appreciate those with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim and process cannabis if they have been caught doing it before it was legal, primarily excluding people of color.

The Department of Commerce thankfully filed for a dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that PharmaCann has failed to pursue an appeal with the department and that the quota isn’t a violation of the U.S. Constitution because “there is no federal right to receive an Ohio license to cultivate marijuana.”

Richard Nixon instituted the War on Drugs in the ‘70s to vilify and jail those who opposed him. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief, openly stated, “We could arrest their [Black Panthers and anti-war hippies] 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.” Twenty years later, Tupac Shakur—rapper, poet, actor and child of Black Panthers—famously said, “Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.” Tupac critiqued unjust social policies and showcased the social ills facing Black Americans in his music, but in the end, “Thug Life” took another educated black man from us.

Let’s hope more people recognize the detriment of the War on Drugs in communities like the ones Tupac represented, and that POC can thrive in a diverse and accepting industry. As more equity programs are put into place, the cannabis industry is sure to flourish.

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna (she/ella) is the founder of RIZE Entertainment. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering and amplifying the work and voices of systematically excluded within the arts. She believes that art is vital for revolutionary practice and movements and hopes that RIZE can be an instrument for amplifying art that expresses the conditions of an unjust society and facilitates healing.