The War on Drugs is far from over, and the racist ideologies that inspired it in the first place are alive and well in today's America. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 600 thousand people were arrested for marijuana possession last year. 46.9% of arrestees for drug violations were black or Latino Americans, a much higher percentage than their representation in the general population. The ACLU cites data that in some states, people of color are up to 8 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Almost half a million Americans remain behind bars for drug-related charges. The racist nature of drug law enforcement has resounding impacts, even in states where cannabis is legal for adult consumption.
In Washington state, a felony conviction, or even two misdemeanors, immediately disqualifies anyone who would otherwise apply for a legal, marijuana retail license. Because people of color are given harsher criminal convictions than white people across the board, a greater percentage of people of color have no chance at all of entering the market. What’s more, people with real cannabis experience and expertise are denied access to the legal industry, because they fell victim to the war on drugs. Despite the fact that cannabis consumption is roughly equal across racial lines, white business owners in Washington are greatly over-represented. 80 percent of marijuana-related businesses are owned by white people, under 6 percent of owners are Hispanic, and under 5 percent of owners are black. Non-white communities end up severely underrepresented at the highest level of the marijuana industry.
The broken criminal justice system is just one obstacle potential businessmen and women face. Assuming a budding entrepreneur meets all of the LCB’s requirements, applied during the correct period of time, and were awarded a license, they now must face a severe financial challenge. Ever wonder why you can’t use your credit card at your favorite local dispensary? Federal prohibition of marijuana means that banks aren’t allowed to give loans or credit to marijuana businesses. Poorly designed laws that are supposed to prevent money-laundering, require multi-million dollar business to operate solely in cash.
What does this mean for the rapidly growing cannabis industry? That any potential business operator has to be able to independently fund their startup. Even our dear commander in chief received a small loan of a million dollars to begin his empire - no such handouts exist in the green economy. Because cannabis store owners have to be able to pay their own way, this creates a homogenous looking group at the executive level.
Given the obvious reality of racial inequality in the legal cannabis industry, what is being done to combat it? On the part of the state and federal government, basically nothing. Just this past June, the United States Senate panel on appropriations blocked an amendment that would allow cannabis businesses to function financially like any other business; access to loans and other vital services from banks. The WSLCB isn’t helping the matter either. Having reached its arbitrarily decided number of license allotments, it is extremely difficult for new players to enter the market.
Luckily, we are not totally powerless! Until legislative action can be taken, we can all make an effort to support those businesses near us that are managed by diverse communities. And as we arrive at election season - do your research. Support candidates that will allow the legal marijuana industry to be more representative of Washington’s diverse populations, and help business to grow to their fullest potential.