Beyond the Smoke: Why decriminalizing cannabis must happen now

"An equitable industry is one that includes the Blacks and Latinx people, whose culture laid the foundation for cannabis legalization" -Imani Dawson

The cannabis industry's glaring issues with inclusion, community support, and decriminalization are not just on the national level, but state and local as well.

black woman smoking cannabis

The cannabis industry’s glaring issues with inclusion, community support, and decriminalization are not just on the national level, but state and local as well.

Illinois is making headlines for its recent legislation that not only legalizes adult use of cannabis, but also directly addresses economic inequality for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the “War on Drugs.” That government-sponsored “war” ravaged primarily Black and brown neighborhoods, sending large swaths of people to prison.  Illinois’ more comprehensive approach to cannabis legalization that goes beyond just legitimizing sales, could serve as a blueprint for other state and local municipalities.

Given the current White House administration, it is unlikely decriminalization will happen on a national level anytime soon.

Below, Jacob Plowden (Cannabis Cultural Association Co-Founder/Deputy Director), Chaney Turner, The People’s Dispensary Co-Founder),  Imani Dawson (Cannabis Education Advocacy Symposium & Expo Executive Director), and Ashaki Fenderson (Tainted Love BK Co-Founder) offer deeper insight into what is happening with cannabis across the country, why decriminalization is of the utmost importance and how a truly equitable cannabis industry would function.

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Mary Pryor: Why must decriminalization sit at the front of cannabis legalization? What are the major points that people miss?

Jacob Plowden: Legalization is now something we understand must be completed in phases to ensure community and industry cohesion. Decrim can be the catalyst that begins the wave of stigmatization for legalization. When utilized correctly with proper policy, it can allow for communities to establish how the market and cannabis business entities functioning within the larger state infrastructure function. When Washington DC passed their bill in 2014, it allowed the gifting of up to 2 ounces of flower and growing up to six plants per adult per household. The larger issue at hand now, is that those who live on federal property (which are low-income Black and brown communities) are barred from growing on their premises. There has to be an integrated system that allows for a gray market which includes transitional and re-entry based modules  that can strengthen communities’ connection to the developing industry. 


Mary Pryor: What can people expect federally if community reinvestment and equity are missing from state bills? 

Chaney Turner: We can expect Black & all marginalized communities to be completely shut out of the cannabis industry. We can expect more criminalization of Black and brown people who have no other choice but to continue selling on the illicit market. We can expect people who have relied on this medicine to have no access and turn to other options and or continue buying on the illicit market, therefore putting them at risk of being arrested or fined. 

Imani Dawson: Without provisions for equity and community reinvestment, we’ll see more of what is already true about the industry, rich white men holding the vast majority of power and control. According to Marijuana Business Daily, 81 percent of cannabis executives are white, and 73 percent male. As the industry becomes more lucrative, they will continue to dominate, despite the fact that the modern cannabis movement was built and popularized by people of color. We have traditionally been locked out of venture capital funding and the cost of starting and sustaining a cannabis business is prohibitive for very few of us.  Equity ensures that small business entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the industry and share in its profits. Community reinvestment means that those neighborhoods most harmed by prohibition and unequal enforcement by police get much needed money for education, job-training, after school and other programs.


READ MORE: Meet The Black Woman Building A ‘High’ End Cannabis Lounge

Mary Pryor: What does an equitable cannabis industry look like given what’s missing in this industry? 

Ashaki Fenderson: Historically, state government has often set the tone for federal legislation. We are seeing that right now with cannabis. If states continue to model poor equity policies and programming, federal legislation will likely follow. That does not allow space for legacy market participants, communities decimated by the war on drugs and entrepreneurs with unfair limitations to capital and resources. These people will be blocked from participating in one of this country’s most lucrative industries.


Chaney Turner: Black and brown people need access to capital. Getting a license is one thing, but if you have no capital to start your business, it’s a set up for failure. Statewide funding for social equity programs & business courses help ensure that equity applicants can be self sustainable and not  rely on loans or general applicants. An equitable industry is one where we prioritize freeing those serving time for drug related charges, clearing their records and restoring voting rights. An equitable industry looks like tax money generated from cannabis going back into the communities terrorized by the war on drugs and rebuilding them. All of these things need to be taken into consideration before legalization takes place. 

Imani Dawson: An equitable industry is one that includes the Blacks and Latinx people, whose culture laid the foundation for cannabis legalization, through music and the arts. We made cannabis mainstream and sustained demand through the extralegal market. Our communities deserve a significant piece of the billions already being generated.  We need seed capital, education about the plant and training on business fundamentals to create pathways to prosperity in the cannabis industry.


Mary Pryor: What are the risks for those who operate in the legacy market? 

Ashaki Fenderson:  Without legalization, we continue to vilify, criminalize and endanger those in the legacy market. Lack of legalization denies them access to not just a regulated industry (ironically, on their backs this industry was built)  but also the opportunity to transition to safer circumstances for themselves, their families and their communities.

Jacob Plowden: The risks for those still operating in the legacy market face the inevitably of state/federal prosecution by law enforcement. The legacy market offers no legal protection against pending cases being built against your business due to not adhering state compliance. You will be subject to arrest, search, and seizure of your products.  Cannabis is still federally illegal, many legacy operators are subjected to legal entanglements that could also keep them out of the industry. States like Colorado, which barred formerly incarcerated people from owning a license, should show that even in passing legislation, there are still victims of the War On Drugs.  


Mary Pryor: How can communities demand change if the government doesn’t place EQUITY DAY ONE within the creation of rules and regs for this industry? 

Imani Dawson: Because of the history of cannabis prohibition, and the way its been used to criminalize and suppress Black and Latinx people, all legalization efforts should include day one equity to help restore communities and reduce harm. Should that not happen, these communities are made up of consumers that once educated, can use civic engagement and economic power to elect politicians with the mandate to represent their interests and support brands and companies that make social equity and social justice as big a priority as making profits.

Jacob Plowden: The income gap becomes more apparent if we don’t plan for EQUITY DAY ONE. Black and brown people already deal with food deserts and economic dilapidation daily. Community boards can be the saving grace to ensure places like Harlem and East New York don’t deal with accelerated forms of gentrification and displacement. Unless companies are prepared to come in with comprehensive corporate social responsibility strategies to ensure they are not solely operating for the sake of financial gain but community reinvestment.


Moving Forward Domestically and Internationally

An equitable cannabis industry also includes checks and balances within organizations that are missing or lack intentional work around social equity and accountability when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Here are some key items that every consumer and regulatory body should demand: corporate social responsibility must be at the forefront of all major cannabis businesses and that includes deliverables and tangible programs that aim to fix the gaps amongst melanated communities, specifically those effected by the War on Drugs. Other key factors include supporting the formerly incarcerated through job training and incubators, community reinvestment (much like the item proposed in Illinois’ recent bill), and inclusion amongst board, executive, and management staffing.

It is time to hold these companies accountable. Consumers should not buy, support, or give them any type of business when we know that they do not make efforts to make this industry inclusive. We can place pressure on these entities through our buying habits while letting them know why we choose to not support them publicly.

Most of the major corporations such as Canopy Growth, Acreage, Aurora, and Ananda Hemp are gearing up for nationwide and Caribbean expansion. Some holdings firms and small corporations are creating funds which offer capital in exchange for equity and ownership amongst cannabis business license holders. Most plant-touching business application processes across various states promote tokenism and offer diversity points with no accountability for a deliverable as a way to offer ineffective equity to marginalized communities. Marginalized politics in countries that are new to legalization such as Canada have no mandates for social equity.

The lack of racial, targeted bias enforcement, and overall inclusive representation is far worse than what is happening within the United States. Being forceful and asking mainstream audiences to hear what cannabis advocates are fighting for is the biggest task that I’ve taken on as part of this fight. We all need this plant medicine. Marginalized communities have to stand up and hit these companies directly in their pockets while the government wrangles around the issue. It is a matter of doing both actively and with intention.

Among her colleagues, Mary Pryor is known for being a trendsetting, innovative, passionate and strategic problem-solver for over a decade. Mary has always been ahead of the curve due to being immersed in automotive design, electrical engineering, music, education, digital arts, and marketing, while being raised in Detroit. She is a bicoastal media expert;  co-founder and CEO of Cannaclusive, a collective focused on inclusion in the cannabis industry; New York chapter president of Minorities for Medical Marijuana; and  serves as the current New York advocate for The People’s Dispensary.