Cannabis Prohibition and its Impact on Minority Communities
As of the publishing of this post, cannabis has yet to be federally legalized within the United States. 37 states have legalized it medically and of those 37, 19 have legalized it recreationally. The cannabis industry, despite its slow-push for legalization through congress, has seen massive growth over the last few years; it’s expected to surpass $99 billion in sales by the end of 2022. The need, and arguably benefit, of having this industry regulated is a priority for many, as is the responsibility of the industry to pay homage to those that were impacted drastically by its prohibition.
Since Nixon began his War on Drugs in the 1930’s, minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana’s inclusion as a “controlled substance” on paper. The racial bias still exhibited by law enforcement yields irrefutable evidence to that; a Black American is nearly 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as opposed to a White American. According to an analysis made by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2020, “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.”That’s roughly the same rate of disparity that existed seven years ago, when we released the first iteration of this report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White. In fact, since 2010 racial disparities actually worsened in 31 states.”
The proof of bias is in the data collected from these analyses. Considering that racial disparity exists in variance across states, one fact remains abundantly clear: a Black citizen is more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana. As a counter to this, multiple states created social equity programs that cater to those disproportionately impacted by the criminalization and prohibition of cannabis.
New legislation prompting the decriminalization of marijuana is a great start, but it isn’t enough. The variance in racial disparity after marijuana’s legalization in some states supports that full egalization and decriminalization aren’t a cure-all in combatance. Racial bias among law enforcement is still prevalent and is causing harm to the minority communities. In reference to ACLU’s article entitled: A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, “police often target people based on race rather than reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Minor infractions, such as possession of marijuana, are often met with aggression and enforced heavily within minority communities; this can also have lifelong repercussions for those affected. Once embedded within the thralls of our Judiciary system, it can be challenging to work through, let alone thrive: this is why social equity programs are vital in the succession of individuals that are plagued by the consequences of a biased system. Legislators and canna-enthusiasts alike are asking themselves: is it the responsibility of a multi-billion dollar industry to make amends to the citizens that have been impacted negatively by it?
The Move to Push Social Equity Programs Within the Industry
Social equity is defined by its impartialness in relation to social policy. The social aspect of it ensures that everyone within the community receives the same opportunities devoid of systematic inequality. The National Academy of Public Administration defines society equity as: “the fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; and the fair and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy.” Within the canna-space, social equity programs ensure people of color are provided opportunities to take part in this lucrative industry, especially citizens incarcerated prior to legalization. The 19 of 37 states that have legalized marijuana recreationally are expected to implement such programs to ensure minority owners/operators have adequate opportunity to obtain licensure for their cannabis business- this front continues to be an ongoing, and languid part of state legislature. There are those that speculate social equity programs aren’t enough and will require additional assistance in order to flourish; these can take on the form of lessened application fees and remove altogether the licensure cap. In order to expand opportunities within the market, it needs to be fully opened and inclusive of minority operators.
The application process for obtaining licensure is an immense undertaking for the applicant. Applications are often written at length and organized by an eclectic panel of people, such as: community stakeholders, real estate mongers, and security personnel. Financial assurance can be especially challenging; cannabis is still labeled as a class I controlled substance and most financial institutions are wary of lending funds to any business in association. If the applicant is approved, they’re subjected to a revolving door of policy and legislative changes, compliance alterations, and rapid evolution of operational procedures. This industry is consistently growing and changing and with it, so must business owners/operators in order to thrive. This is why social equity programs are vital to the minority communities disproportionately affected by racial bias and marijuana prohibition. The National Association of Cannabis Business explains: “The goal of social equity laws is to ensure that people from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and discriminatory law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry. Policymakers are working to address criticisms that outsiders are setting up legal cannabis businesses and profiting by doing the same things their less fortunate neighbors were arrested and given jail time for just a few years ago.”
The Long Road Ahead
We’re making headway, but there is still work to be done. Current social equity programs in recreationally legalized states need to be analyzed and expanded to better assist applicants in obtaining proper business licensure. Only 13 out of 19 states developed social equity programs for their marginalized people. Arguably, any state that legalizes marijuana recreationally should have such programs in place. It should be advised that even if an applicant of a social equity program receives a provisional license, it doesn’t grant long-term success. Extending resources past the first or second year of development would contribute to the longevity of the business. Additionally, in order for states to accurately account for policy reform and its impact on citizens, routine data needs to be collected; the current gaps make it impossible to understand what’s occurring in our communities. Only by obtaining more data are we able to better reform our policies to support the communities most affected by marijuana prohibition.
- NCIA: Advocating for the responsible cannabis industry. The National Cannabis Industry Association. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://thecannabisindustry.org/
- A tale of two countries: Racially targeted arrests in the era of marijuana reform: News & commentary. American Civil Liberties Union. (2021, April 16). Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/a-tale-of-two-countries-racially-targeted-arrests-in-the-era-of-marijuana-reform
- Incorporated, P. (n.d.). Social Equity in governance. National Academy of Public Administration. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://napawash.org/working-groups/standing-panels/social-equity-in-governance