How Can We Reconcile The Cannabis Business & Drug Policy Activism In 2018?

Every April 20th (AKA 4/20 or National Weed Day) countless people celebrate their love of cannabis-related products by getting high, sharing weed memes and generally acting like the way-too-obvious kid who sat in the back of your Intro to Philosophy class. Allegedly coined by a group of high schoolers in the 70s, the notorious holiday has become an annual celebration of stoner culture.

According to Ballotpedia, only eight states in the U.S. permit recreational cannabis usage, whereas 29 states have legalized medical marijuana (and 16 others have legalized the use of cannabis oil). With the different policies in place, it creates a situation where legal cannabis-related businesses thrive in the parts of the U.S. where they’re permitted, while other laws still incriminate people in other states, particularly for members of marginalized communities and people of color.  

Along with all the fun of the high holy day of 4/20, it would be pretty hypocritical not to pay attention to the realities of cannabis policy in the U.S., though. So Her Campus talked to weed entrepreneurs, legal experts and activists about this complicated moment in cannabis history, to look closer at how folks can support legal businesses while also supporting the people who have been targeted by marijuana laws for years.

The Pot Privilege Problem

The history of cannabis laws in the U.S. is as deeply connected with the country’s racist and xenophobic past (and present). As Jose Belen, a decorated United States Army Combat veteran, cannabis activist and co-founder of Florida Mission Zero, notes the “demonization of cannabis” in the United States —right down to the use of the word “marijuana”— was born out of anti-Mexican immigrant sentiments in the 19th century.

Belen, whose activism centers around making the drug accessible to the medical community, told Her Campus that the drug (which had previously been available as a medicine in the United States) was essentially rebranded to support xenophobic myths and eventually the laws passed to prohibit it contributed to lasting devastation in other marginalized communities.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes, current marijuana laws in the U.S. disproportionately affect people of color, particularly black men. While white people and people of color use cannabis at virtually the same rate, the ACLU reports that black people are much more likely to be incarcerated for cannabis crimes. In fact, people of color are 375 times more likely to receive jail time than their white peers.  For some perspective, the ACLU notes that out of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent of them were for just having marijuana.

The stigma surrounding drug-related arrests could also prevent people of color from breaking into the legal cannabis industry. As City Lab reports, 81 percent of all cannabis-related businesses in California are owned by white people.

According to Robert Miller & Associates, the State of California reserves the right to reject an applicant who has a criminal background, especially if an applicant has been convicted of a crime that’s “substantially related to the qualifications, functions, or duties of the business or profession for which the application is made.”

Therefore, if someone who has been convicted of a cannabis-related crime attempts to apply for a cannabis license (so they can start their own legal cannabis business), their application could be rejected. The regulations behind starting a legal cannabis business can be an additional limiting factor for people of color, who are statistically more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related crimes, to establish their own business.

“It is the epitome of hypocrisy that someone who has gotten in trouble for something that is now legal cannot work in the industry in some cases,” Jane West, the CEO of the titular cannabis lifestyle brand Jane West and founder of Women Grow, told Her Campus. “It is insane that a bunch of white dudes are working on getting rich off of cannabis, while there are still people sitting in jail for it.”

What can cannabis consumers, producers and students do?

Cannabis attorney, activist and advisor in cannabis law Cristina Buccola, told Her Campus that to combat the ways “cannabis prohibition has been used to oppress communities of color” any cannabis legalization legislation should center “equity and social justice measures.”

She also suggests channeling cannabis tax revenue to create social justice programs, health and mental health services, and “legal services in the communities most disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition."

Buccola says those strategies can also work to diversify the cannabis industry: “These equity and social justice measures can include encouraging POC to participate in the industry, requiring diversity plans for license applicants, allowing/promoting those with criminal histories to seek employment in the cannabis sector, and expunging criminal records for cannabis offenses that are no longer criminal.”



West, who has also worked to mentor other small business owners — particularly women — in the cannabis industry, says that it’s super important for other businesses and consumers to be mindful of the racially biased cannabis laws as they navigate the new frontiers of the weed biz if they’re ever going to combat the hypocrisy.

West isn’t a stranger to cannabis-related stigmas herself. After her employer witnesses her vaping on CNBC in 2014, West lost her job as a corporate event planner. In response, she grew her empire to empower women in the cannabis space, founding the industry’s largest networking organization for women in the industry along the way. Because she has experience working with and mentoring women and other people who are discriminated against in the cannabis industry, West recommends that people passionate about the movement start getting loud and embrace transparency about the cause.

“Attending protest and rallies is part of being a bold and vocal part of this movement,” West said. “If you really care about this, you should bring it up to your employer. I would say marijuana legalization is globally inevitable, so you are on the right side of history. I would recommend talking with your employer about why you want to attend these events. You might be surprised how they feel about it.”

The Times They Are A’Changing?

After all, cultural ideas surrounding cannabis consumption are rapidly changing. As the Pew Research Center noted earlier this year, sixty percent Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana — almost twice as many as the numbers (31 percent) from 2000.

And for people like Belen, who has been working with like-minded activists to sue the federal government to remove cannabis from its list of Schedule I drugs, legalizing cannabis in the U.S. could be a gateway to some major progress in healthcare while taking strides to do right by the people harmed by this drug policy.

“My frustration with the current scheduling is that there are so many American men, women, and children who are suffering as a result of [cannabis being a Schedule I drug], while the government owns the patent to cannabis as a form of neuroprotection," Beren said. "Descheduling cannabis would help so many American minorities that are often the target of arrest for marijuana offenses lead lives not as criminals, but as patients and productive human beings..If we make cannabis readily available to those who need medical access to it, we can truly start the healing of our nation’s sick that is so desperately needed.”