Actually, cannabis is a white man’s game. I know better than most. I’m a white man. If I’m walking down the street, smelling of weed, it’s likely someone will ask me for a business card, rather than shoot me on sight in front of a 4-year-old child. Aren’t I lucky to be considered an opportunity rather than a deadly weapon by virtue of my skin color? If I want to start a cannabis enterprise, like a small farm or local dispensary, I’ll even have a head start on all the black and brown people who have never smoked more weed than me and my white friends, but who, because minorities were much more likely to be arrested (or murdered by police) for cannabis, are banned from entering a lucrative new industry by language that prohibits participation from anyone with a prior conviction.
The Voters Spoke…
The people of Massachusetts thought maybe this wasn’t so fair, though. They felt that perhaps communities that had been most adversely affected by the war on drugs should have the same chance to profit from the end of cannabis prohibition as their white, affluent counterparts. Ballot Question 4, approved by voters in November of 2016 to regulate cannabis similarly to alcohol, included specific language aimed at creating the most inclusive program possible:
“The regulations shall include procedures and policies to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities.”
But not Everyone Listened
However, when the Massachusetts House of Representatives rewrote the law approved by close to 2 million people, this language was left out, replaced by restrictions many saw as another opportunity to exclude minorities from the cannabis industry.
Shaleen Title, an attorney who co-wrote Question 4 and fought for specific provisions regarding diversity, sees this move as a continuation of a failed policy and a violation of the will of the voting public.
“The House Bill makes no substitute for this language, and the fact that H. 3768 failed to include it is a direct attack on the will of the voters across Massachusetts who voted for social justice and the communities that have suffered the most under the failed ‘War on Drugs,” Title asserts via press release.
A Call to Action and Accountability
In response, citizens mobilized, calling lawmakers and organizing a Wednesday rally at the State House. Members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus were in attendance to make sure lawmakers knew voters expected equity. Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley emphasized that a compromise was not acceptable, and not what the voters want: “Equity is not optional. The War on Drugs had a disparate and devastating impact on low income and communities of color. Last November, voters made it clear that racial diversity and inclusion in the emerging cannabis economy was a priority to them.”
These voices were heard, and during a closed-door session the inclusivity language was reintroduced to the House bill, along with a requirement that regulators “adopt diversity licensing goals that provide meaningful participation of communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition and enforcement, including minority business enterprises.”
The bill was sent to the Senate, where several changes were made but the equity wording was left intact. Next, a six-person committee will work together to find a compromise between the two chambers’ bills. Their deadline is June 30.
Still Work to be Done
This marks, at least temporarily, a major win for diversity in cannabis. It’s also a testament to what can happen when we come together to fight for what is fair and right. While activists expect that the equity language will remain in the bill, nothing is certain. Residents of Massachusetts who want a cannabis industry committed to equal opportunity should be prepared to continue the effort next week.
If you live in Massachusetts, please call your representatives first thing Monday morning (find yours here)! You can stay up-to-date of any developments by liking and following the Equitable Opportunities Now Facebook page.
The toll that the war on drugs has taken on our country, through the decimation of whole and healthy families, is immeasurable. While no amount of business opportunities can repair all the damage done, we must work for meaningful change in this realm. We cannot let the same, tired, racist ideas define the construction of a legal and regulated market in the way they defined our misguided drug policies.