Will African-Americans benefit from the emerging marijuana industry?

The historic shift in marijuana policy happening around the United States and the world begs a couple of questions concerning African-Americans.

First, will this change in policy benefit or somehow hurt our community?  Second, is no longer having the underground marijuana economy that has, like it or not, been a supplemental source for income for our young adults and the unemployed or underemployed good in the long run?

The drug war is more effective at continuing the disenfranchisement of the poor and people of color than it is at preventing drug use, and we argue about whether this was the intended goal in the first place: to reinforce racism.  The results have been undeniably tragic for the African-American community no matter the intent.

Thanks to Michelle Alexander and her book The New Jim Crow, it is common knowledge that drug law enforcement has taken a disproportionate toll on poor communities of color.  No community has borne the brunt of the drug war as much as African-Americans.  This is true despite overwhelming data (and common sense) revealing that we don’t use or sell drugs at higher rates than white people.

The drug war fuels mass incarceration, and marijuana prohibition has fueled the drug war.  Nearly half of all arrests nationally involve minor marijuana possession.  I knew legalizing marijuana would change the game as currently played. I was not naïve enough to think ending marijuana prohibition or even the drug war as a whole was a panacea to various root causes that create challenges for African-Americans.

However, I knew this was an opportunity to discuss the racist enforcement of marijuana prohibition, the drug war as a whole, and the negative impact on our communities.  Collateral consequences of even a minor marijuana arrest are barriers to employment, housing, and education for a community that already faces an uphill battle when it comes to opportunity.

Colorado and Washington are in the process of replacing the illicit marijuana market with a legal one. By the end of the year, these states will likely not be alone.  These states will no longer spend millions to criminalize thousands but will spend millions from recreational marijuana tax revenues to better address the needs of their citizens.  The Latin American nation of Uruguay has already joined them as the first country to legalize marijuana.

With the dramatic move towards legalization, African-Americans should ensure we are not locked out of the emerging industry.  It is unjust for the group that bore the brunt of marijuana enforcement for decades to benefit by no longer getting arrested but to lack access to the economic gains of the marijuana industry.

Unfortunately, the collateral consequences of drug charges could prevent many of us  from engaging in the legal market due to strict licensing requirements that prevent drug offenders or felons from taking part.  The drug war was fought in our communities, and many of us carry scars that hamper our ability to gain access.   Meanwhile, the already rich will just get richer, and the existing harm to our communities will continue.

We urge black entrepreneurs to research and consider the emerging marijuana industry.  Drug Policy Alliance is committed to starting this conversation with entrepreneurs along with racial and economic justice advocates across the country.  Michelle Alexander joined us recently for a teleconference and spoke to this very issue: “I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused.”

It’s time we take these questions on directly with those who craft policy, business leaders, criminal justice reformers, and the emerging marijuana industry.

A good starting point would be staging a symposium on the opportunities the marijuana industry provides for African-Americans. Black entrepreneurs and those interested in the continued development of economically distressed communities should not be caught playing catch up on an issue that has had a disproportional and negative impact on black communities.

Isn’t now the time to stake our claim in this emerging, multimillion dollar industry?

At the very least, we need to ensure that those who want to explore the potential of this new market have access to the opportunity and the know-how required to move forward.

Art Way, Senior Policy Manager, Colorado, of the Drug Policy Alliance