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Black History, Green Present

The War on Drugs, social equity programs and the ongoing and disproportionate arrest rate for Black Americans using cannabis

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It's Black History Month, which intersects with cannabis on a number of fronts. Prepare your shocked face when I tell you that not all those fronts have been favorable to the Black experience, and it's still not going great.

Four years ago, I looked at a 2014 academic paper which explored how cannabis was widely "introduced" to the United States, and popularized, by Blacks and Mexican Americans.

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The paper's author wrote:

"The black community also began to pick up on cannabis, so that reinforced this racial stereotype that brown and black people smoke cannabis, and white people did not. Because it was used by black Americans and Mexican Americans, it helped to feed into the racist fears and stereotypes that were used to make it illegal in the 1930s."

As I wrote, cannabis played a key role in the development of jazz music by Black musicians, an immeasurably valuable contribution to the planet. As a thank you, White Devil Hall of Fame MVP William Anslinger engineered the criminalization of cannabis in 1937, pushing disgusting racist lies of Black men using cannabis, then assaulting white women.  His motivation was arguably based less in a puritan belief system decrying intoxicants, than his deep, virulent hatred of the Black community.

This laid the groundwork for President's Nixon's War on Drugs in 1971, resulting in a staggering increase in cannabis arrests in 1972, from 100,000 to over 420,000. Those arrests were, and remain, disproportionately punishing to Blacks and POC.

Although cannabis use between Blacks and whites is close to equal, nationwide Blacks are 3.6 times more likely to get arrested for cannabis. As of 2018 in some parts of the country—looking at you, Pickens County, Georgia—Blacks are 100 times more likely. Don't get too smug, Yankee, because that same year, Clackamas County outside of Portland had a Black cannabis arrest rate nearly eight times higher than whites. Statewide in Oregon, it's 1.8 times.

But with 37 states and four U.S. territories offering recreational and/or medical cannabis programs, the regulated cannabis industry is worth $61 billion and growing. With that growth has come self-examination of how the industry can address this history, and promote social equity.

Arguably the most successful of these efforts has been expungements of cannabis arrest records. Those records erect absurdly high barriers to critical basics such as housing, educational loans, credit, employment opportunities, as well as establishing a business within the cannabis industry itself. A concerted effort has resulted in numerous cities and counties removing hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor and felony cannabis convictions.

The social equity efforts have been mixed, albeit the concepts and actions of social equity have been recognized, and written into recent cannabis legalization legislation laws. But a 2017 survey found just 4.3% of cannabis businesses were Black owned, which social equity programs are designed to improve.

So, about that...

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we need look no further than the City of Angels. Its social equity program faced a years-long delay of implementation, numerous lawsuits and an underwhelming success rate.

Among other problems, many Black "cannaprenuers" were left bankrupt by a licensing requirement that they own/rent an approved cannabis business space, which remained empty, for years of squabbling by lawmakers. Bonita Money, executive director of the Los Angeles' National Diversity & Inclusion Cannabis Alliance, told the Pew Trust, "We don't have one successful social equity [licensing] program yet."

Aside from seeking out and purchasing Black-owned cannabis brands, make a difference with these groups:

The Last Prisoner Project works to get the over 40,000 U.S prisoners convicted for cannabis crimes, many of whom are Black, released. They have a great success rate, and also seek expungement of records, and provide resources and tools to support those released with their reentry. lastprisonerproject.org/

I've written about Portland-based Black woman and mega badass Raina Casey, founder of the Oregon Handlers Fund, which covers the $100 application fee for a Marijuana Workers Permit for Black and non-Black people of color. oregonhandlers.org/

With the explosive growth in the cannabis industry has come self-examination of how the industry can address this history and promote social equity.

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