by Jack Porcari
May 25th marked a tragic day in US history when George Floyd, an unarmed black man accused of using counterfeit money to pay for cigarettes, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Americans were outraged by Floyd’s death, highlighted by the enormous acts of civil demonstration that erupted in cities across the US in the following weeks. Despite social distancing guidelines for COVID-19 and curfews instituted by the city, protesters here in Buffalo assembled in large groups and marched through downtown spreading their message. Black lives matter. Police brutality and corruption must end now. These events have led to discussions nationwide about racism, policing, and injustice. In this article, we take a brief look at injustice occurring in our city and the cannabis industry. We also hear how some businesses are responding to the events. Black Lives and Cannabis Justice On the national level, black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana compared to their non-black peers. Here in Buffalo, black individuals account for more than 70% of all possession-related marijuana arrests in Erie County. The war on drugs has wreaked havoc for minority communities across the nation and in our own city. The recent events illuminate that significant change is needed before our world is truly equitable for all. Systemic racism is seen in nearly all aspects of life — fixing one part of the problem, like police corruption and brutality, for example, will not necessarily solve the problem. The legal cannabis industry is no exception to this multifaceted issue. One quote by New York Times opinion columnist and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander perfectly highlights the grotesque levels of inequality within the legal cannabis industry:
“Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses … after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing.”
White business owners dominate legal marijuana, owning over 96% of licensed dispensaries. Many believe that black entrepreneurs are being kept out of an industry that they helped create. There can be enormous obstacles to entering the legal cannabis industry depending on what state you’re in. For instance, if you sought to operate a medical dispensary in New York, the application fee alone would cost you $10,000. And if you were one of the few companies to be selected to register with the state, another $200,000. In some states, the fees are even higher and may prohibit individuals with criminal records from even applying. Despite the serious lack of diversity in the legal marijuana industry, there is a promising future for what lies ahead in 2020 and beyond. Many cannabis companies are using their platforms to support the Black Lives Matter movement and are taking a stance against the historic use of marijuana prohibition as a tool of oppression. Leafly, one of the cannabis community’s most well-known media and educational platforms, released the following statement: “We stand with the Black community and will use our resources to amplify the voices of those fighting for social justice in cannabis … we will strive to improve our company and our industry, and end America's racist war on drugs.” Additionally, Leafly donated $50,000 to the Last Prisoner Project, an organization aiming to release over 40,000 individuals who are currently in jail for low-level cannabis offenses. Leafly is committed to changing the conversation around cannabis, and they make it clear that the issue of racial, social, and economic justice must never be forgotten. Another well-known company, RAW rolling papers, pledged to donate supplies to retailers that were affected by the looting and riots that took place in numerous cities. RAW’s founder stated, “If you are one of the people who took those papers, I hope that each sheet will bring you peace — we are one beautiful community, and we have to have each other’s back.” Pax Labs, a popular cannabis vaporizer manufacturer, added to these sentiments by programming their entire website to say, “Black Lives Matter” on June 2nd for blackout Tuesday. The solutions to racial disparities within the realm of cannabis law enforcement and industry practice are far from reach, but there is much to look forward to. Four states have legalization measures on the 2020 ballot, and another four states will be voting in 2021 on the issue. Let’s hope that these states take note of the changing atmosphere and adopt policies that foster impartiality in their jurisdictions. Legalization alone will not solve these problems: it is time that marijuana can become an opportunity for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or cultural background. We must use this poignant moment in history as a lesson to guide how our world plans to address the most pressing matters of our time.