Is the Marijuana Industry a White Industry?

Is the business of cannabis for all of us?
Is the business of cannabis for all of us?
Ernie Manrique/L.A. Weekly

Don't believe the hype. Los Angeles has more dispensaries than the entire state of Colorado. And L.A.'s population is nearly three-fourths minority. So if California fully legalizes marijuana in November under Proposition 64, the city is poised to become America's pot capital again, at least in the eyes of a national media enamored with Denver's nascent weed culture.

But if L.A. is to retake its throne and California, where Latinos comprise the largest racial or ethnic group, is to resume its role as the nation's marijuana darling, where are the culture's minority entrepreneurs?

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that only about 1 percent of weed business owners are people of color. At the same time, 70 to 80 percent of marijuana-related arrests nationwide happen "in communities of color," according to the group.

Tomorrow a group of marijuana advocates and minority pot business owners will address "a Capitol Hill audience" at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., about diversity in the business. Bill Piper, senior director of the DPA’s office of national affairs, will moderate the affair. "Marijuana legalization without racial justice risks being an extension of white privilege," he says.

If approved by voters, Proposition 64 would legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for Californians 21 and older. Critics have said the law would make it easier for corporate interests to invade the Golden State's cannabis industry, and that it would be bad for mom-and-pop businesses, which could be more likely to be run by people of color. 

Locally, medical dispensaries not recognized by the city want recognition under various proposals to finally license such businesses. Some have said permitting a portion of those illegal shops would also racially diversify a system that favors about 135 or fewer collectives that have limited legal immunity in Los Angeles.

With 25 states and Washington, D.C. offering legalization, medical pot or at least some form of decriminalization, the issue is also a national one, the DPA argues.

"It is clear the historical enforcement of cannabis prohibition has been overwhelmingly against people of color. Now we are seeing the systematic exclusion of people of color through the state procurement process for licensing cannabis operators," said Dr. Malik Burnett, a physician at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "It’s simply unequal treatment under the law by another name. Minority cannabis operators from around the country are coming together to discuss how we can stop this discrimination and use the cannabis industry to create equity, economic justice, and restore communities most impacted by the failed war on drugs."


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