Time for Reparations? How the Marijuana Industry Is Excluding People of Color

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Feb 04 2016

Time for Reparations? How the Marijuana Industry Is Excluding People of Color

This year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop talking about “diversity” in the marijuana industry. It’s a sharp turn, considering that’s what I spent most of 2015 doing.

Having co-founded a recruiting firm that emphasizes inclusion in cannabis companies, I sat in dozens of meetings with white “ganjapreneurs,” pointing out the need to bring more people of color into new businesses, conferences and publications devoted to the (largely white) green rush.

Yet nothing has changed. The legal marijuana industry still excludes people of color from the wealth and influence it generates. And our industry’s unique history makes our institutional racism particularly shameful.

The problem with “diversity” is that busy white leaders often see it as a box to check off. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few rolled eyes and outright dismissal, but more typically, the response is agreement, accompanied by a tight-lipped smile and a suggestion to solve the problem. Usually that “solution” entails tasking me with finding a token “diverse” person. Or, I’ll be asked to put together a panel to contain and address the issues facing people of color in one or two hours. Then it’s on to the next topic.

People of color are even more weary of the term “diversity.” Its overuse has led it to become a sanitized, corporate-friendly buzzword largely devoid of meaning. Recently, I asked a Latina colleague if she would serve on a cannabis panel. She declined, explaining that she’s sick of being tokenized to showcase how diverse organizations are, when in reality they are shutting out people of color from their decision-making.  

It’s much easier and more palatable to talk about “diversity” than to ask the real questions: How do we replace the illicit marijuana market with a new regulated industry that begins to repair drug war-fueled destruction? How can we direct profit and economic empowerment from the industry to people who have been targeted by the War on Drugs?

Try this experiment: Bring up the word “reparations” on a marijuana industry conference call, and see how many people talk over each other in an attempt to quiet you.

But we need to talk about it. The marijuana industry is different from Hollywood, tech and every other industry currently struggling with a “diversity” problem. Because this industry was created by campaigns using talking points about the systematic destruction of communities of color to encourage voters to pass legalization.

I know, because I helped run those campaigns, and I used those talking points myself. We talked the talk; now we have to walk the walk.

A factor in our favor is that cannabis consumers are engaged, informed and willing to back their beliefs with their votes and their dollars. These are the people who turned out to make one of the most dramatic policy changes in modern history, after all. If the power of the dollar is the prime concern for businesses, they should pay attention to the practices that consumers want. Given the chance, I believe that marijuana consumers would willingly go out of their way to support companies that create economic empowerment for people previously harmed by the drug war.

So let’s stop talking about diversity. Instead, let’s figure out how we can harness our historic ability to foster change to creating a path to ownership, equity and belonging for communities of color. To start, there are a few obvious steps we can take.

First, we need to allow people who have been arrested for or convicted of drug offenses to obtain marijuana business licenses and seek employment in the industry. Many state laws currently prohibit this. Given that you’re 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession if you’re black than if you’re white—despite everyone using marijuana at similar rates—these rules perpetuate discrimination. Our goal must be to remedy the racial disparity caused by unfair enforcement of prohibition—not continue it with yet more unfair laws governing the legal industry.

In 2016, these provisions should be a deal-breaker. Our movement and industry must together refuse to actively support or endorse any bill or ballot measure that prevents people from working in a legal marijuana facility based on past drug convictions. It’s time to remove hiring restrictions and create pathways to ownership for people of color.

Existing businesses must play their part by doing everything they can to team up with people from communities that have been targeted by the drug war. It’s the right thing to do, of course, but there are also plenty of other reasons to do it.

Hiring people from different communities helps you reach consumers from broader audiences. It’s also often a smart recruiting strategy to look for people who have worked with marijuana pre-legalization; by definition, cultivators who have worked with marijuana since before it was legal have the most relevant experience. So from a purely business perspective, to exclude people who have convictions—who are disproportionately, as we have seen, people of color—is to deprive yourself of a lot of valuable expertise.

It’s also time to create licensing processes that allow more businesses and lower barriers to entry. In certain states, the process has been designed to strongly favor wealthy and politically connected (read: white) applicants. They may require the payment of extraordinary licensing fees, the possession of major capital (up to a million dollars in the bank), and in practical terms the hiring of a lobbying firm to help navigate the process. The demands of these systems have often caused delays, restricted access for patients and damaged productivity for everyone, as well as excluding people of color.

Take Massachusetts. The medical marijuana law passed in 2012 initially allowed only 35 licenses to be granted. Twenty were awarded at first, but then a series of Boston Globe articles highlighting conflicts of interest and political influence led to years of delays and several licenses being withdrawn. Meanwhile, the remaining licensees couldn’t open their doors and were forced to pay incredible costs for things like wasted rent and litigation. The first dispensary didn’t open until 2015, with only four currently operating.

What if the law didn’t present such barriers for applicants and instead allowed for as many dispensaries as patients needed? The process would have moved more quickly and smoothly for patients, and businesses would have avoided PR nightmares from which they’re still recovering. A process that’s more accessible and equitable would also be better for patients, and arguably for big business owners.

Finally, we need to collect data to quantify the disproportionately small number of people of color in the marijuana industry. Maryland is the only state that requires an annual report on minority owners and employees. But anecdotally, the problem is obvious.Of the hundreds of registered dispensaries in Colorado—arguably the state with the fewest restrictions and barriers for ownership—only one of them reportedly has a female black owner.

Obtaining that data is a crucial step. Every state-level marijuana program should be required to keep records on the race, gender and city of residence of each applicant (attempted and successful). Separately, each license holder should be required to submit an annual report regarding the business’s minority and women owners and employees. Only by knowing how bad the problem is can we effectively address it.

We are at a crossroads. Please join me in moving past cosmetic racial diversity and refocusing on the sense of humanity that has driven our legalization movement.

Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander put it best: “We must join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.”

Shaleen Title is a co-founding partner of THC Staffing Group and a longtime advocate to end the drug war. You can follow her on Twitter: @shaleentitle

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  • Ev1L

    what a crock of shit…

    • Your comment is vague – are you saying this story is a crock of shit or the contents is true and is a crock of Shit.

  • Writer – I’ve run into that glass ceiling a lot. It’s not just the government that targets us – ( or writes new laws to exclude us but the ganjapuwnturs you speak of willingly ignore those laws and thicken the glass themselves)


  • blc49

    So the war on drugs is a conspiracy against people of color and the legalization of drugs is a conspiracy against people of color? Add to this that marijuana businesses run by whites are located in poor communities because wealthy white communities don’t want them in their neighborhoods–as reported in Denver. Also, heroin overdoses are only a big deal now because now those who are dying are white.

  • Law ‘n order

    If your state allows medical but not recreational marijuana, I don’t think you have much chance of getting the prohibition of people with drug convictions lifted. The medical marijuana states all have regulations intended to prevent the diversion of medical marijuana into recreational uses; people with a history of drug crime will be thought to be the ones most likely to illegally divert product into recreational channels.
    In the states where marijuana has been outright legalized, I think you have some chance of getting the restrictions on people with marijuana convictions lifted but I would bet that there is no chance at all of getting the restrictions on people who have convictions for other drugs lifted.

  • Thanks for this Shaleen. It would be a goddam shame to ignore the opportunity before us, which is to build a socially conscious, progressive industry where once there was nothing, or where there was systemic injustice.

  • Joey

    mang err than raysis af.

  • Clyde_Frog

    What doesn’t offend black people now? Anything at all?

  • Barry

    “I sat in dozens of meetings with white “ganjapreneurs,” pointing out the need to bring more people of color into new businesses”

    Except that this “need” doesn’t actually exist. You built a website and business around the idea of guilting businesses into hiring people they don’t need to hire, almost all of whom are less qualified than non-black candidates. It’s actually a horrible business practice. But, if the companies don’t play along…out comes the race card. And there is nothing that scares the shit out of CEOs and the upper class than the idea of being called racists.

    The post only gets worse from there.

    • Kamani Dah Jeff


      You are a white man. Are you actually emphasizing with the author? I’m in the process of launching an infused product and all the people in business I have dealt with are white men like yourself. The fact that only one dispensary in Colorado is owned by a women of color is mind blowing. This whole war on drugs was a war on people on color. In order to end prohibition, we must focus on this topic.

      • raz-0

        It’s empathizing.

        You can have whatever opinion you like of diversity, but the diversity consulting business is pretty messed up. In that Barry is right.

        We got subjected to it where I worked, and the consulting firm that got the gig basically put out a message that you needed minorities, and the only way to get them was to treat them better than the non-minorities, and expect less of them. For more money.

        Basically the notion of fairness was totally absent, and they weren’t even capable of seeing that their message, as interpreted by the kind of asshole management that needs to hear a message about valuing any employee properly because they feel no guilt about being shitty to them, was that white people require less maintenance, will cost you less overall, and will perform better overall.

        As a business, I have yet to see it executed as anything but awful. Most of diversity is finding good candidates, and most (possibly none) of the consulting firms seem to be providing that.

  • eze

    The main issue is that many black people act like thugs. They talk, walk, and chew gum in their own way. How about we stop getting gold teeth, pull up our pants, and leave the slang out of our businesses. You have to be presentable to the masses and what you feel is presentable may not be appropriate to us. The only people that find that type of thing appropriate is other people of the same type. This issue with that is your business model will have to include the fact that any white person that walks in your store would be offended by they way you look and act and will not return. So now you are limited as to how much goods or services you can sell. Are black people offended by the way white people present themselves?…well white people are offended and so are many other races that have to deal with that type of garbage.The black people that talk, walk, and chew gum like the rest of us all have jobs as white people are fine with hiring and doing business with intelligent black people.

    Oh and you wouldn’t care so much about “black people” if you knew what they truly thought about you.

    • Kamani Dah Jeff

      Right cause all black people are lIke this…
      Are you black?

    • breathin

      Wow, proud of our racism, aren’t we?

  • eze

    Barry is correct: This article is nothing but spam.

  • breathin

    Shaleen. I have good friends in the industry. I have been to countless med and rec dispensaries in 6 years in Colorado. I think you are right on. Ignore the racists comments below.

    Wanda James is an incredible person, and incredibly successful. I had the pleasure of meeting her and her husband back in 2014, having only known her as an FB friend previously. If she were not so busy owning and running dispensaries, edibles company and 4 restaurants with her husband Chef Scott, I would think of her as the first person to contact on this issue.

    She knows politics and how to get sh*t done.

    PS: Most recently I heard of her starting a cannabis cooking school. Scott’s edibles are amazing. A brilliant idea by a brilliant entrepreneur/businesswoman.

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  • Darren Holland

    They mostly hire young white women like its a bar not a dispensary and to be honest a lot of hires are friends of friends too so as most weed is sold not by patient need it’s more a perfumery too. Anyway last time I checked I can tell you now I have never mostly bought whatever from young white women mostly guys and mostly black men at that so this new version of racism known as cultural fit is a bunch of bs that shouldn’t be happening in what is supposed to be a diverse product to start with.

  • Justin Roth

    To emphasize a need for people of color in the emerging legal cannabis industry is preposterous. Race plays no part in the an entrepreneurs opportunity. I would people in the industry are far beyond racially tolerant. Should we make grants specifically available for starting business based on the fact that the applicant is of an ethnic minority whom is not statistically associated with the business. Many successful farmers and dispensary owners (yes predominantly white) are people who have been prepared for a legal cannabis industry and have invested their capital from the days of their clandestine gardens in the woods into a legitimate thriving industry. These entrepreneurs many who spent years gaining the experience to now produce a theomercial grade product in demand deserve their place because they put in the work. Most of these white people in the industry you would find would treat a non white competitor no different especially in regions where there is legal Cannabis.

    • Anchovy Garbanzo

      They may not have the resources or land to grow etc. as you describe, especially in urban areas, but African Americans still have the skills to run a business. If white’s historically start closer to the finish line than African Americans, leveling the playing field through grants is not putting African Americans before white people.
      If you want to make this not a race issue, it is certainly a class issue, because without a million dollars already how is the average entrepreneur supposed to get going? Maybe they should just make the business more accessible to everyone.

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  • JosephDavis

    Well…..as a Black man, with a few years of marijuana use and a conviction from the 60’s when possession in Texas could easily warrant a 99 yr. prison sentence, this story doesn’t surprise me. I’m an older man now and I’ve concluded that this new industry wasn’t built for people of color to participate or profit in. As I often say, “What do you expect?”

  • David Christian

    Funny, I have known honest, knowledgeable low to mid-level traffickers, cannabis only, who stayed on the right side of prison gates who would make ideal dispensary owners or staff. Most of them black men and women.

  • Bill

    This is a compassionate, practical guide to righting the wrongs of both the drug war and its opportunistic opponents. Drug prohibition has been class and race war from the start. We need to follow Ms. Title in making sure that it does not end that way.

  • David Whitfield

    Here is my recommendation as an economist, completely deregulate it, no quotas, no mandates, no requirements, no occupational licensing, no reporting, just seeds, dirt, sun, i.e. the freest most equal system possible.

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  • FrostyLED

    As an employee and entrepreneur in CO, I can tell you, getting a job even as an educated grower isn’t easy. I have gotten screwed on several deals I put together, designed commercial grows, & didn’t get but pennies on the dollar of what I was promised. Oh yeah, I’m Native American. You think I chalk up me being screwed for being native? NOPE, I chalk it up to greed and individuality, which runs the capitalists society. If you want to change it you gotta get to the top. Most chumps give up along the way. It’s all about the cash, not color. I plan on being wealthy, and when I look back I’ll see everyone who tossed me aside, and give the newbies a shoulder to stand on. Reparations? How about pointing out more blacks owned slaves as a percentage compared to whites? Are you going to make the blacks who owned slaves descendants pay? Stupid argument as soon as you take one logical look at it. Native American tribes had an entire sovereign continent stolen from them, and here you are complaining about the more popular click-bait. Figures.

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  • forthechildren

    How then will we handle the ever increasing bans on smoking here in California? Marijuana smoke good tobacco smoke bad? Minorities then increasingly victimized by local smoke free ordinances?

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