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Why the legal marijuana industry is now struggling with diversity and inclusion

As marijuana legalization expands across the country, who is benefiting from the blossoming industry? In most cases, it is a very different population from that which has previously borne the brunt of marijuana criminalization. Millions are still dealing with scars from the war on drugs, leading to deep skepticism that the marijuana industry can get inclusion right. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

 

 

 

 

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the final installment in this week's series The Green Rush.

    In our previous pieces, we have seen how the marijuana industry is booming across the country. But amid this growth, there are serious concerns that those most affected by decades of marijuana criminalization are being left out.

    Yamiche Alcindor is back for this report. It's part of our occasional series Chasing the Dream, on poverty and opportunity in America.

  • Wanda James:

    These are all the amazing products that we carry at Simply Pure.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the marijuana industry, Wanda James has made a name for herself. She opened her first dispensary in 2009. Since then, her company, Simply Pure, has become one of the premier brands in Denver. James is also a pioneer.

  • Wanda James:

    We were actually the first African-Americans legally licensed in America to own a dispensary.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, as the industry grows, James now finds herself more of an outlier.

    When you look around that cannabis industry, as an African-American woman, what do you see?

  • Wanda James:

    White men. White men. White men. White men.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    More and more states are moving to legalize recreational marijuana. Those efforts have led many to look into issues of diversity and question just who is benefiting the most from the industry.

    Data is hard to come by, but a recent survey of nearly 400 marijuana businesses found that more than 80 percent were owned by white men. The numbers also show that African-Americans and Latinos bore the brunt of marijuana criminalization.

    The American Civil Liberties Union found, between 2001 and 2010, black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, that despite roughly equal rates of use.

  • Art Way:

    The collateral consequences of even a petty drug offense is huge.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Art Way was the Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance for nearly a decade.

  • Art Way:

    You're talking about consequences when it comes to employment, housing, education. And here we have a demographic who is already dealing with an uphill battle when it comes to broader structural inequity.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For James, those consequences were personal.

  • Wanda James:

    My brother was caught up in that at age 18. He was caught with four ounces of cannabis, which is about $160 worth of street value for cannabis. And that cost him 10 years of his life.

    When he first went to a privatized prison system, for the first four years, my black brother picked cotton every day.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now cities and states are trying to address this issue, with varying degrees of success. In Colorado, diversity wasn't a part of the initial legalization effort.

  • Ashley Kilroy:

    People didn't know what they didn't know at the time. I think people were just trying to get this passed and get started, and then, you know, make sure we get this up and running.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Ashley Kilroy is director of the Office of Marijuana Policy for the city of Denver.

  • Ashley Kilroy:

    We were just trying to make sure the sky wasn't going to fall. We were worried about what it could do for our city. We were worried about what it looked like — might look like for crime in the city, what it might look like for our youth.

    I know business owners who I talked to, they were just worried about making sure they didn't go to jail.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last year, Denver started a program to seal records of people with low-level marijuana charges. So far, only a few hundred people have applied. And, this year, the city plans to use about $11 million in marijuana tax revenue for affordable housing projects.

  • Ashley Kilroy:

    We have got a lot of these broad-brush approaches, and we don't think, you know, there's one magic bullet. I think nothing is off the table, and we are willing to choose whatever we think is going to make the biggest impact for Denver.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, advocates say the city is simply not doing enough. Instead, they want to lower the barriers to get into the marijuana industry.

  • Joshua Littlejohn:

    Minorities just don't have a strong enough footprint to outweigh the money issues.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Joshua Littlejohn has been making marijuana products in Colorado for years. He wants his own license to expand his business. But, so far, he hasn't been able to get one. In 2008, he was convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

  • Joshua Littlejohn:

    The biggest thing is the opportunity to change my life, not only my life, but my kids' life and their kids' lives. So that's what attracted me off just out the gate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But opening a site can cost millions of dollars in real estate, legal fees, and regulatory compliance. And despite his experience in the industry, Littlejohn says investors look at him differently.

  • Joshua Littlejohn:

    I think that it's a fear, it's just a fear thing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A fear of what?

  • Joshua Littlejohn:

    A fear that we're not going to do the right things, or a fear that, OK, yes, you had this industry before, but you have only done it illegally. You don't know how to do it, or, I guess, the level that they feel — and this is verbatim — I have had people tell us, you guys cannot do how we can do it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Denver says the city needs to time to study to issue. It's now trying to collect demographic data to build a program to help minorities get into the industry.

    Since Colorado legalized, other states have tried to deal with this issue from day one. Massachusetts was the first state to include language in its legislation specifically addressing the issue of social equity.

  • Shaleen Title:

    I had worked on the campaign in Colorado. And I think that none of us understood at the time how important it was to include in the law from the beginning that it has to be intentional and deliberate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Shaleen Title is one of the commissioners on the state's Cannabis Control Commission. It created a licensing program that prioritized applicants from areas designated as disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition.

    They also plan to set up training and technical assistance programs. But here, too, progress has been slow. The state has granted about 150 licenses. Only three have gone to minority business owners, and none of the priority applicants have had their applications approved.

    This is huge.

  • Chauncy Spencer:

    Well, this is only a small portion of it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Chauncy Spencer is one of those applicants. He wants to open a dispensary and grow operation in Boston. Much of the delay comes from the municipal approval process, and, for him, the biggest barrier isn't financial.

  • Chauncy Spencer:

    We don't have the political capital, we don't have the knowledge base to get things moving. And it's extremely unfair, when we have to go up against lobbyists who have millions of dollars at their disposal.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, the costs are high. He says, while waiting to get approved, he's spent more than $80,000 on rent alone.

  • Chauncy Spencer:

    Used to come and have pizza right over there at the House of Pizza.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But for Spencer, who was arrested in 2004 for growing four marijuana plants, something that would now be legal in Massachusetts, it's worth it to be a part of the industry.

  • Chauncy Spencer:

    We're hoping that we can correct that by keeping the money within the community, employing people from our community, and allowing the money to circulate as many times as humanly possible.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Cannabis commissioner Shaleen Title acknowledges the flaws, and says more can be done.

  • Shaleen Title:

    I think the major lesson for other states is, what Massachusetts has done is the bare minimum. I would like to see loan funds. I would like to see more reinvestment into harmed communities. I would like to see expungement and just, in general, more of a central focus.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The state is now planning to offer certain licenses exclusively to social equity applicants for two years, pending public hearings.

    There's some cause for optimism. Advocates in states like Connecticut and New Jersey, which are interested in legalizing marijuana, say social equity will be a top priority at every stage. Still, as millions deal with the scars from the war on drugs, there's deep skepticism that any state can fully undo those harms and get inclusion in the marijuana industry right.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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