When Alaska and Vermont decriminalized recreational marijuana over the past year, they doubled an already massive market of legal weed. Estimated to be worth upwards of $35 billion, it’s attracted everyone from marketing gurus to venture capitalist and beyond. But among those vying for a piece of the pot pie, one group is distinctly missing: African Americans.
Larry Gabriel, a Detroit-based marijuana writer, knows why: “It’s because they’re scared,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Traditionally, African Americans have taken the brunt of the war on drugs. African Americans and Euro Americans use marijuana at approximately the same rate, but African Americans are the ones who go to jail.”
The question has gained momentum on social media, with an affiliate of NBC recently tweeting: “Why Aren't More African-Americans in the Cannabis Industry? Their answer, offered in 30 seconds, wasn’t quite as thorough or informative as one would hope. Twitter, per usual, had a better response: They’re in jail.
The answer has merit. According to the ACLU, a black American is nearly four times as likely as a white American to be arrested for marijuana possession.
While that is, perhaps, the simplest and most obvious answer, it’s also more complex. Gabriel says that Detroit, a city with a population more than 80 percent black, has an active African American community group trying to stop the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries in Detroit. The average age, in Gabriel’s assessment, is about 70. “These are people who have financial and political influence [in Detroit].”
Gabriel explains that the NAACP-National organization called for an end to the war on drugs, yet the local NAACP chapter won’t speak with him about it. “If you’re African American and you’ve seen your community destroyed, and you identify part of that destruction with drug use…They see what they think has destroyed people’s lives,” he says. “People have had this negative attitude their whole lives. Personally, I see it differently. I see it as economic opportunity.”
Gabriel points to new dispensaries opening in Detroit on blocks that have nothing on them but empty store fonts, the ruins of a more prosperous time. Yet, economically, many people, black and white America alike, are priced out of the new green gold rush.
As an example, Gabriel points to Illinois, where you had to have $500,000 to ask for a license to run a dispensary.
Mike Cann, a talk radio host and long time marijuana activist in Boston, points out that in Massachusetts, there is a $30,000 non-refundable fee just to apply for a medical marijuana dispensary permit. “It’s basically a $30,000 lottery ticket.” In addition, the applicant has to show they had $500,000 available. “That’s a gamble for people. The Feds can come in and seize it at any time,” he says. “So not only do you have to put the money in an escrow, you have to hope the Feds don’t seize it. The whole thing is insane.”
Cann says regulations are steep across the board. “Not just for minorities, but for working class people, who lack access to that kind of money.” What ends up happening, in Massachusetts and across the country, he points out, is “Only the people with the money end up with the licenses.”
“They sold the idea [of marijuana regulation] based on money,” says Doug McVay, a long-time drug policy reform advocate. “That’s been the driving story in these states. Making money.”
McVay points to a Washington Post blog entry from 2013 that digs into the black/white marijuana arrest gap, and demonstrates how states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana all have smaller than average black populations. “That remains true in 2014,” McVay says. “Oregon and Alaska both have fewer African Americans than the national average. D.C. is the one place where there is a majority African American population that legalized marijuana—and it’s the only place with real legalization without commercialization.” In D.C., anyone can grow their own.
“D.C. was straight up. And it won, and I think that ties in to the money. In these other states, it’s all about the Benjamins.” Even though other states might talk about criminal justice issues, McVay points out, it comes down to their desire for revenue.
Gabriel notes that in addition to states having high application fees to be involved in the business, they also preclude those convicted of a felony. In Detroit, and many other African American communities, there are “a very high proportion of people with felony convictions on their record. If you have a felony, you can’t get into the marijuana business.”
In addition, looking around at the marijuana reform community, he notes, “I don’t see very many black people around this scene. People don’t want to go jail. Anyone who’s African American feels like they’re walking around with a target on their back. When I started writing about it, I felt that way. In six years, nothing has happened, I’ve had people come out of the closet to me. But I haven’t had anyone come down negatively on me. Maybe it’s a perception that you’re afraid of, but there’s plenty of history to give you reason to be afraid.”
“It’s sad, because so many of the people” who worked to reform marijuana laws are excluded from participating in the legal marijuana business, says Cann. “A bunch of people with a bunch of money—they’re the ones who get the licenses. I don’t think [drug policy reform] groups considered that in the past. They should recognize that, and hopefully they change it in the future. It’s not helping patients, and it doesn’t allow any diversity.”